Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild


The hippopotamus is the third largest land animal after the elephant and the rhino. Although many people think they are related to these, or to pigs and horses, they are in fact more closely related to cetaceans (whales and dolphins).

(C) Michael Vickers

Hippos have large heads, barrel shaped bodies and very little hair. For their body size, hippos have relatively short legs because the water in which they spend most of their time supports much of their weight. They will spend up to 16 hours a day wallowing and relaxing in the water, which keeps them cool and prevents their skin from drying out in the hot sun. Their skin excretes a red-coloured oily substance which moisturises the skin and acts as a sunscreen, possibly also helping to repel insects.  Their eyes, ears and nostrils are located high on their heads, which allows them to see and breathe while mostly submerged.

Hippos are well known for being aggressive and even lethal, especially if they have young around. The hippo's yawn is not a sign of tiredness or boredom, but is a threatening gesture. The jaw can open to an angle of 150 degrees and half a metre wide.  A single bite can snap a small boat in half.


(C) George Logan
(C) George Logan

Baby hippos are usually born under water, and have to swim to the surface to take their first breath. The young often rest on their mothers' backs when in water that is too deep for them, and they are able to suckle underwater. They will also suckle on land when the mother leaves the water. When in the water, hippos push against the river bed with their feet in order to move themselves around. When sinking completely underwater, their nose and ears automatically close and they are able to run along the bottom of the water, holding their breath for up to 5 minutes at a time.

Hippos have large tusk-like canine teeth that grow continuously throughout their life and can reach 60cm or more in length. Hippos use them to fight, and they can do serious damage to one another.

Even though hippos are so big, they are herbivores, eating only plants.  After spending the day in water, they feed at night and may eat as much as 45kg of grass in a single night.   Their search for food may take them five miles inland and so they will often mark the path with their dung and urine to help them find their way back to the water.

Today there are only two species of hippo left in the world, the common hippo and the pygmy hippo. Currently, fewer than 150,000 common hippos exist in Africa, and there are thought to be no more than 3,000 of the endangered pygmy hippos remaining. The major threats to hippo survival are poaching (for their ivory teeth and meat) and loss of habitat, due to human settlement, deforestation and pollution.  These threats continue to grow.

Males: Bull
Females: Cow
Max speed: 30mph on land 5mph in water
Body Length: 3.3 - 5.2m
Tail Length: 56 cm
Body Height: 1.5m
Weight: F: 655 - 2300kg, M: 1600 - 3200kg
Life Expectancy: 40-50 years
Diet: grass, shoots, flowers
REGION: Africa
HABITAT: Rivers, lakes, mangrove swamps
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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