Sunday, July 6, 2014


Hippopotamus or hippo comes from an ancient Greek word for "river horse" (hippos means "horse" and potamos means "river"). I'd never really had much interest in hippos before, even at zoos they were kind of a yawner for me, but I left Africa in love with them - every huge, disgusting, unsightly, dangerous part of them. I've learned that they are quite agile, fast and like to wander. They are much more interesting than I ever imagined. 
This hippo in the Mara River in Masai Mara. Photo by Mark Edwards.
Also along the Mara River. Photo by Judy. This hippo has left the pod about 50 yards down the river. 
The pink/purple also found on the belly.
They are big, but still get around amazingly well. 
The eyes, ears and nostrils are toward the top of the head. This allows them to stay mostly submerged, while still seeing, hearing and breathing. 
This makes my jaw ache. Amazing that they eat mostly grass. It looks like it could swallow a lion whole.
A direct view down the maw. The throat is not as big as the jaws might lead you to believe.  Photo by John Mirau.
The hippo is the third largest land mammal, after the elephant and rhinoceros. Judy wondered if they are related to pigs, but their closest relationship is actually to whales and porpoises, from which they diverged 55 million years ago. Hippo fossils 16 million years old have been found. Hippos were found along the Nile River in Egypt and the lower two-thirds of Africa, historically, but they are now only found in small splotches of their historic territory. There are five subspecies. The subspecies we saw, "H.a. amphibius," stretched from Egypt, along the Nile River to Tanzania and Mozambique, although they are now extinct along the Nile. 
Another angle of that big mouth. Photo by John Mirau.
This angle reveals the size and sharpness of the teeth. Anything in the way beware.
Hippos have skin six inches thick, with very little hair. This gives great protection against predators. Their upper parts are purplish/gray to blue/black and their underparts and the area around their eyes and ears can be brownish/pink. Their skin secretes a substance that acts as a sunscreen. The substance is initially colorless, then turns red-orange within minutes and eventually turns brown. In addition to providing suncscreen, the subtance is acidic and inhibits the growth of disease-causing bacteria. 

Hippos mostly stay in water during the day, in rivers, lakes and swamps, to stay cool. Territorial bulls control a stretch of a river with groups of five to 30 females and young. A group can be called a pod, herd, dale or bloat, this last word seeming particularly apt. Pods can get as large as 100 hippos. We saw several examples of very large groups, in Masai Mara and in the Serengeti, where pods had to be much more than 50. 
When I first saw this I thought it was a river full of large rocks. A glance with more scrutiny reveals that most of those rocks are hippos. They are hard to count, because you can't tell if bumps are multiple hippos, or part of the same hippo. However, there are well over 50 hippos in this pod. 
A closer look reveals a little more detail.
This was a different place in the Serengeti, but another one full of hippos. Here the water was absolutely disgusting. This photo captures less than a quarter of the area that was loaded with hippos. Photo by John Mirau.
When that many get together the water gets disgusting. We heard them making all kinds of ungainly noises, emerging from the water with a big burst of air, spewing blackish/green colored water. This is where the term "pig" comes to mind. At dusk they leave water to graze on grass, a solitary activity. 
A closer view into the hippo muck, with at least seven hippos in this photo. 
I love their pinkish/purplish skin.
One of my favorite photos, by Mark Edwards. You can see the muck smeared all over the hippos face and ears. 
More hippo muck covering the hippos. 
Ah, togetherness.
Despite their shape and short legs, they can run 19 miles an hour over short distances, far faster than a human can run. We learned that they are the most dangerous animal in Africa, killing more people than any other. I was skeptical of that fact, thinking all you have to do to avoid them is be careful around the water. Then we did a night game safari in Masai Mara. I was astonished to find hippos all over, at great distances from water. They will go as far as six miles from water to graze on grass, their main source of food, and if a human gets between the hippo and the water, all it takes is one chomp from those over-sized teeth and it is amen to that person. 
These views reveal cleaner hippos. Photo by Michael Lewin.
And this little one is downright cute. Photo by Michael Lewin. 
Lots of pictures, but I just love the hippos. Photo by John Mirau.
Photo by Mark Edwards.
These water profiles are reminiscent of water profiles of alligators. 


  1. Very interesting. They seem really socialble

  2. I had the opposite reaction. I used to like hippos and think they are cute, but now I think they are rather disgusting. I can't get past how they lie in their own waste. Ugh.

  3. It's astonishing that can be so big and heavy on a diet of grass. I didn't know a lot of the facts you've written in this post-very informative.