Their name means ‘river horse’ (but don’t try to ride one…)
‘Hippopotamus’ is an ancient Greek word that means ‘river horse’. We can sort-of understand why the Greeks compared these semi-aquatic quadrupeds to similarly long-faced horses, although they’re genetically very different. And we can’t stress enough how foolish it would be to attempt a cavalry charge on hippo-back. Seriously… just don’t.
They are some of the most aggressive creatures in the world
Far from the bumbling, dopey depictions of hippos in cartoons and children’s literature, real-life hippos are not the friendly giants that many people assume. In fact, these are some of the most belligerent beasts on the planet. Highly territorial, hippos are aren’t afraid to attack humans in boats, and can charge you down like an angry bull on land. They kill crocodiles for kicks and regularly chase away cocky lions. Now you understand why trying to ride a hippo would be a particularly dumb move.
They produce their own natural sunblock
The same ancient greeks who named the hippopotamus were baffled by the fact that these creatures seemed to sweat blood. Indeed, seeing hippos covered in a viscous red liquid is not uncommon, but the substance found on their bodies is not blood. They secrete anti-UV liquid that acts as a sunblock to protect them against Africa’s harsh rays, which turns red as polymerises on the surface of their skin. This natural sunblock is also an antibiotic.
They can easily outrun humans
Think hippos are slow, lumbering mammals? Think again. People who underestimate the hippo are shocked when they discover that the creature is capable of rampaging across the land at an impressive 40 kilometres per hour. Even though they sometimes roam for miles out of the water, they always like to have a clear route back to their favourite pool or river. Block this path and you might find out what it feels like to be run over by two-ton hunk of hippo.
Their teeth are half a metre long
Sure, you already knew that hippos had big teeth, but the exact size their gnashers can grow to is (literally) jaw-dropping. Hippopotamus teeth grow continuously, with their incisors reaching 40cm and canines reaching lengths of half a metre. Despite them being so large, hippos don’t need these large teeth for feeding. Instead they use them for combat, relying on smaller molars to grind up the tough grasses they eat.
They are related to whales and dolphins
We’ve established that hippos aren’t that much like horses, and they don’t share much of their genetic make-up with cows or pigs either. So who are the cousins of these enormous ungulates? Despite technically being land animals, the hippos closest relatives are sea-dwelling cetaceans: whales and porpoises (such as dolphins). The hippo’s family tree branch diverged from these marine mammals’ approximately 55 million years ago.
They need our help
Hippos aren’t the first creatures that come to mind when we think of vulnerable or endangered animals, but they do desperately need support from conservationists. Their main threats include habitat loss and poaching, due to the value of their meat and ivory canines. While exact figures are impossible to know, it’s thought that common hippopotamus populations have declined by as much as 20% since 1996. The pygmy hippo of Western Africa is even more at risk: these smaller, shyer creatures are listed as endangered, with somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals remaining in the wild.
Most people know that hippos are large, live in water, wallow in mud and eat a whole lot. But apart from those things, is there anything particularly interesting about these whopping African mammals?
As it turns out, yes. We’ve gathered some of the most intriguing nuggets of information about the humble hippopotamus, so you can really impress your friends with some top notch animal knowledge next time one of them suggests a game of ‘Hungry Hungry Hippos’. You’re welcome.
Interested in learning more about hippos, lions and the rest of Africa’s megafauna? Why not check out our online video service, packed full with amazing documentaries straight from the heart of the Africa’s amazing wilderness and beyond.