Image credit: Andrew Silent

When we think of hippos, the first image that comes to mind is often a massive, semi-aquatic creature basking in the sun alongside a riverbank. However, there is much more to these fascinating animals than meets the eye. Beneath the surface of the water, hippos reveal a world of unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in both aquatic and terrestrial environments. In this blog, we will dive into the world of hippos and discover the incredible adaptations that make them so well-suited to their semi-aquatic lifestyle.

Skin secrets

Hippos have thick, hairless skin that secretes a viscous red substance, often referred to as “blood sweat.” Contrary to its name, this red secretion isn’t blood but a natural sunscreen and moisturizer for their sensitive skin. It acts as a barrier against the harsh African sun and keeps their skin hydrated while inhibiting the growth of disease-causing microbes.

Image credit: Mike Varndell

Image credit: Mike Varndell

Image credit: Shayne Hodges

Dental defense

The hippo’s tusks are a marvel of nature. These large canine teeth harbor one of the world’s mightiest bites, exerting a jaw-dropping 1,800 PSI or 8,100 Newtons  bite force—surpassing even lions and polar bears. Capable of opening their jaws 150 degrees with a single ferocious bite, they could cleave a human body in two. Their front teeth can grow up to 1.2 feet, while their canines reach an impressive 1.5 feet, solidifying the hippo’s status as having the largest teeth among land mammals.

Image credit: George Turner

Image credit: George Turner

Image credit: George Turner

Image credit: Isak Pretorius 

Aquatic Misconceptions

While renowned for their imposing size, formidable jaws, and aggressive tendencies, hippos may surprise many by their inability to swim in the conventional sense. Despite their affinity for aquatic environments, hippos are so densely built that traditional floating is beyond their capability. Instead, they rely on walking or running along the riverbed, utilizing their sheer bulk to move within the water. However, hippos have adapted well to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, featuring eyes and nostrils atop their heads for effortless breathing and underwater surveillance.

Social Structures

Hippos are known for their complex social structures. They often congregate in groups, sometimes numbering in the dozens, with a dominant male at the helm. Their social interactions and vocalizations are intriguing, and they exhibit a unique blend of cooperation and competition within their groups.

“Hippos are social animals that move in groups, called rafts, led by a dominant male who mates with all the females. If a challenger defeats the leader, he takes over, and the former leader is expelled. These groups vary in cohesion based on river conditions; in shrinking rivers, females move more. Joining new groups is tough for males, as they must defeat the leader to be accepted, or they get ousted, becoming single outcasts, depending on their strength and conditions.”

Patrick, Senior guide at Shenton Safaris

“The females relocate between rafts based on river conditions. For instance, at the hippo hide, we observed a large number of hippos at the start of the season. However, as the season has continued, the distribution has changed. Some females have chosen to explore other pods with better river conditions. It’s important to note that while females may change pods, males tend to remain in their territories, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the females.”

Elias, guide at Shenton Safaris

Herbivorous Appetites

In the evening, after the scorching sun has dipped below the horizon, hippos emerge from the water for a night of grazing, a ritual that extends for approximately six hours. Astonishingly, despite their massive weight, hippos consume an average of only 40 kilograms of food throughout the night, accounting for roughly 1 to 1.5 percent of their body weight. Remarkably, they manage to extract nutrients efficiently from the fibrous plants they consume, thanks to their unique digestive system.

Image credit: George Turner

Guardians of Territory

While on land, hippos are not territorial, but they are territorial in the water.

“Male hippos defend their river territories by marking them with urine and feces to signal ownership and discourage other males. Territory size depends on the river’s water level; full rivers mean larger territories, while low rivers result in smaller territories and more frequent fights.”

Yoram, senior guide at Shenton Safaris

Image credit: George Turner

Image credit: George Turner

Mating Rituals

Male hippos choose their mates when the females are in heat, separating them from the group for mating. This mating process lasts around 30 minutes and is most common between May and July. Hippos are polygamous, meaning they have multiple mates throughout their lives, and males may mate with several females in a single season.

Female hippo births can occur both in the water and on land, with the female often seeking a relatively shallow area in the river or a secluded riverbank. After a gestation period of about eight months, the female gives birth to a single calf. These newborns, though smaller in size, are not to be underestimated, as they already weigh around 50 to 100 pounds at birth.

Image credit: Isak Pretorius 

In conclusion, hippos are remarkable creatures with a range of unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in their habitat. From their intriguing “blood sweat” and formidable tusks to their captivating underwater world, these animals are a testament to the diversity and wonder of nature.

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About Megan Woolley

Megan Woolley has written 38 post in this blog.