I was amused to see that the Latin name for a hippo was Hippopotamus amphibius – it’s notoriety makes the second part seem rather redundant given that there isn’t a non amphibious hippo that it needs to differentiate from. In fact, there are just two species of hippo around today – this one (the common hippo) and the pygmy hippo (found in Liberia). Fossil records suggest there used to be several other types such as the Malagasy, European and several dwarf hippos (Indeed Wiki suggests that hippos were once found in the British Isles). Sadly both the common and the pygmy hippos are respectively classified as vulnerable and endangered by IUCN. Having only just met these impressive behemoths I am keen that future generations also have the pleasure of their company.
Here comes a problem though, because a lot of what I thought I knew about hippos turns out to be false. It could be that I am singularly uninformed but I suspect that the popular culture version of hippos isn’t as scientifically accurate as it could be. They don’t swim, they are the most dangerous animal in Africa, have no sweat glands, and they do not dance around to ‘Dance of the Hours’ wearing little pink tutus. (If you think I have gone a bit bonkers here you need to watch Fantasia – it will be 126 minutes very well spent).
To unpack the serious revelations then let us first talk about the swimming thing. Or rather the lack of it. When you see hippos in a body of water with their little snouts poking out it would seem they are not floating around but rather standing on the bottom, in the mud. Sort of pretending to swim then. They can cross rivers and deeper lakes but they do this by walking along the bottom underwater and then bouncing up for air, and really, they tend to avoid deeper water. Considering that their closest relatives are the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) it would seem almost comical that swimming is not their forte. Certainly anyone who repeatedly saw the BBC1 ‘ident’ of the swimming hippos can join me in feeling a little mis-informed.
Next up the accolade for Africa’s most dangerous animal is attributable to their land speed of 30km/hr, their large and powerful bite, and their complete unpredictability. They might seem like a gentle giant but that would be a seriously life-shortening mistake to make. Hippos grind their teeth to sharpen them and have pretty impressive canines and incisors for a herbivore because they use them for fighting. A male hippo can weigh more than 2,000kgs and swim at 8km/hr, helping him to hold a territory in water, in which his pod lives. A pod can be anything up to 100 hippos, though the pods we saw were more like 20 individuals. Almost all of a hippos life, from birth to mating and fighting, to eating and snoozing will be done in the water. In short, if you can see a hippo you should probably give it a very wide berth (incidentally the ‘yawn’ is actually a warning sign – you may be too close to a hippo for his comfort).
For a beastie of this size living in Africa, not having sweat glands would seem to be something of a disadvantage. If they stay out of water for too long their skin can crack, however they are not as unprotected as they might seem. Hippos actually secrete something incredibly useful: sunscreen, which, being highly acidic, is also an anti-bacterial agent. This secretion has a red colour that was initially mistaken for blood.
Aside from the mind-blowing biology of these incredible creatures I was struck by their sociability. Bobbing on a boat nearby we watched as a youngster rested on the back of its mother in the middle of the group. We heard the low, nasal calls the group made to one another and watched the gentle ear flicks splash water over the pod. I can’t quite call them elegant, but there was something calming in watching them together, their little pink eyes squeezing shut against the last amber rays of the sun. Contented.