The Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), from the Greek “˜Î¹Ï€Ï€Î¿Ï€ÏŒÏ„αμος (hippopotamos, hippos meaning “horse” and potamos meaning “river”), is a large, plant-eating African mammal, one of only two extant, and three or four recently extinct, species in the family Hippopotami.


Hippopotamuses (hippopotami is also accepted as a plural form by the OED), also called hippos, are gregarious, living in groups of up to 40 animals, called a pod, herd, school or bloat. A male hippo is known as a bull, a female, a cow, and a baby, a calf. A hippo’s lifespan is typically 40 to 50 years. Female hippos will reach sexual maturity at 5 to 6 years, and have a gestation period of 8 months.

Hippos average 11 ft (3.5 meters) long, 5 ft (1.5 meters) tall at the shoulder, and weigh from 3,300 to 7,000 lb (1500 kg to 3200 kg). They are approximately the same size as the White Rhinoceros, and experts are split on which is the next largest land animal after the elephant. Male hippos appear to continue growing throughout their lives, whereas the females reach a maximum weight at around the age of 25. Females are smaller than their male counterparts, and normally weigh no more than 1.6 ton (1500 kg). The value given above of 3.5 tons (3200 kg) is often quoted as being the upper limit of weight for a male hippo. However, larger specimens than this have been documented, including one of which weighed almost 5.5 tons (5000 kg). The hippopotamus is a bulky animal that can run faster than a human on land. There are estimates of its actual running speed varying from 18 mph (30 km/h) to 25 mph (40 km/h), or even 30 mph (48 km/h). The hippo can maintain these higher estimates for only a few hundred yards.

The eyes, ears, and nostrils of the hippo are placed high on the roof of the skull. This allows them to spend most of the day with the majority of their body submerged in the waters of tropical rivers to stay cool and prevent sunburn. For additional protection from the sun, their skin secretes a natural sunscreen substance, which is red-colored. This secretion is sometimes referred to as “blood sweat,” but it is not actually blood, nor sweat. This secretion starts out colorless and turns red-orange within minutes, eventually becoming brown.

There are two distinct pigments that have been identified in the secretions, red and orange. The two pigments are highly acidic compounds. They are known as red pigment hipposudoric acid and orange one norhipposudoric acid. The red pigment was found to inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria, lending credence to the theory that the secretion has an antibiotic effect. The light absorption of both pigments peaks in the ultraviolet range, creating a sunscreen effect. Hippos all over the world secrete the pigments so it does not appear that food is the source of the pigments. Instead, the animals may synthesize the pigments from precursors such as the amino acid tyrosine. (Saikawa, et al., 2004)

As indicated by the name, ancient Greeks considered the hippopotamus to be related to the horse. Until 1985, naturalists grouped hippos with pigs, based on molar patterns. However evidence, first from blood proteins, then from molecular systematic, and more recently from the fossil record, show that their closest living relatives are cetaceans ““ whales, porpoises and the like. Hippopotami have more in common with whales than they do with other artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates), such as pigs. Thus, the common ancestor of hippos and whales existed after the branch-off from ruminants, which occurred after the divergence from the rest of the even-toed ungulates, including pigs. While the whale and hippo are each other’s closest living relatives, their lineages split very soon after their divergence from the rest of the even-toed ungulates.


Before the last Ice Age, the hippo was widespread in North Africa and Europe, and it can live in colder climates on the condition that the water does not freeze during winter. It is now extinct in Egypt, where it was a familiar animal of the Nile into historic times. The less familiar pygmy hippopotamus of West Africa, Hexaprotodon (Choeropsis) liberiensis, exists in two populations. One ranges in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The other population, with a different shape to the skull, ranged until recently in the Niger Delta but may now be extinct.


Hippos are highly territorial; a male hippo often marks his territory along a riverbank from which to draw in a harem of females, while defending it against other males. Male hippos challenge one another with threatening gapes. Their canine teeth are 20 inches (50 cm) long, and it uses its head as a battering ram, especially against rival males while fighting over territory. Since farmers and tourists often encroach upon their habitat, and because they are so territorial, the hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. They are said to account for more human deaths than any other African mammal. The hippo does not hunt humans, but defends its own territory vigorously.

Hippos are usually found in shallow water, and rarely come out of that depth. Most hippos that look as though they are floating are standing or lying on the bottom. They come on to land to feed, mostly at night, consuming as much as 110 lb (50 kg) of vegetation per day. They have been known to occasionally scavenge meat from animals found near their range.

Adult hippos are not generally buoyant. When in deep water, they usually propel themselves by leaps, pushing off from the bottom. They move at speeds up to 8 km/h in water. Young hippos are buoyant and more often move by swimming, propelling themselves with kicks of their back legs. Baby hippos are born underwater at a weight between 60−110 pounds (25 to 45 kg) and must swim to the surface in order to take their first breath. The young often rest on their mothers’ backs when in water that is too deep for them, and swim underwater in order to suckle.

Adult hippos typically resurface to breathe every 3-5 minutes. The young have to breathe every two to three minutes. The process of surfacing and breathing is automatic, and even a hippo sleeping underwater will rise and breathe without waking. Hippos have been documented staying submerged for up to thirty minutes. A hippo closes its nostrils when it submerges.


Three species of hippos became extinct within the Holocene on Madagascar, one of them as recently as about a thousand years ago. A dwarf species, Phanourios minutis, existed on the island of Cyprus but became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. Whether this was caused by human intervention is debated (see Aetokremnos). In 2005, the population of hippos in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park had dropped to 800 or 900 individuals from around 29,000 in the mid 1970s, raising concerns about the viability of that population. This decline is attributed to the disruptions caused by the Second Congo War. The poachers are believed to be former Hutu rebels, poorly paid Congolese soldiers and local militia groups. The poachers hunt due to hunger but also for money. A three-tone hippo is worth thousands of dollars. The sale of hippo meat is illegal, but when the meat arrives