Hippopotamuses, or hippos for short, are large amphibious mammals that inhabit the rivers and lakes of Africa.
A male hippo is called a “bull”, a female hippo is known as a “cow”, and a baby is called “calf”. Hippos spend their day eating grasses from river banks or lake shores. At night, they come out to graze on land, often returning to the water before sunrise to sleep off heavy meals!
They live in groups called pods and can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, in places like Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. These areas provide hippos with the perfect living environment. Ample plains with lots of grazing opportunities and open water for them to cool off in.
Hippos are omnivores that spend about 5 hours a day grazing on grasses. They also eat fruit, seeds and aquatic plants too. Occasionally, they eat meat, mostly from carcasses. These can even include the carcasses of other hippos.
There are 2 hippo species: the pygmy hippo and the common hippo. The Pygmy hippo is a dwarf species that lives in west Africa, while common hippos are found in central African rivers and lakes. Each has its own food preferences.
Hippos are not only one of Africa’s largest land mammals, but also one of its most dangerous animals! They are very aggressive and territorial, and can run as fast as a horse at full gallop! But, since they are so large, it is not common for them to do so.
What Do Hippos Eat: The Omnivorous Diet of Hippos
Hippos are omnivorous species – they eat both plants and animals. They mainly eat grass, but they will also eat fruit, seeds, and other aquatic vegetation. In the wild, hippos spend about 5 hours a day grazing on land near the water’s edge.
There are 2 species of hippopotamus:
- Common hippo
- Pygmy hippo
The most noticeable difference between a pygmy and a common hippo is size. Common hippos typically weigh 0.5 to 2 times more than pygmies – common hippos weigh on average 3,500 kg, while pygmy hippos usually weigh around 275 kg.
Common hippos have a reddish-brown hide with a few white patches, and their eyes and ears are small. Pygmies are usually darker than their larger relatives, with lighter patches that fade into pink or brown. Another distinguishing feature is the elongation of their head.
Pygmies are more terrestrial feeders, meaning they spend more time on land and eat mainly grasses and other vegetation. Common hippos are more aquatic feeders, eating mainly aquatic plants. However, they will also venture onto land to graze on grasses and other vegetation. Hippos eat about 80kg of grass each day. Due to their multiple stomachs (yes, they have more than one!), they have an extremely slow digestive system – the food they consume takes around three days to digest. In the wild, hippos spend about five hours a day grazing on land.
Both species will also eat fruit, seeds, and aquatic vegetation. Sometimes, they’ll add meat to their diet, though they don’t hunt for it themselves. You can see wild hippos scavenging carcasses now and then. In summary, hippos are not picky eaters – they’ll eat whatever is available in their immediate environment. This means that they can survive in areas where other animals may not.
But this also means that hippos can become a nuisance. They may raid fields for crops or graze on grass intended for livestock, causing problems for farmers and ranchers. Due to these issues within farming communities, there is some debate over how to best manage the populations of hippo herds in Africa. This has led to increased poaching of hippos in some areas.
Hippos are not only one of Africa’s largest land mammals but also one of its most dangerous animals. They are very aggressive and territorial. Hippopotamus is the Greek word for “river horse”. The common hippo gets its name from the ancient Greeks, who thought that the animal lived in the water and only came out at night to eat.
They can run as fast as a horse when they need to, but it’s not common for them to do so because they’re so large. Hippos are usually pretty docile, but if you get too close or threaten their young, they can be very dangerous. They’re even known to attack boats and can kill a human with one chomp of their massive jaws.
They have two sharp incisors, which they use for defense or to show dominance over other hippos in the herd. They also have large canine teeth that are used for fighting off predators when threatened. Pygmies are also much less aggressive than common hippos, which is why they have not been hunted to extinction like their larger relatives.
Hippos Diet in Zoos
Now you’re probably wondering “how do zoos manage to feed a hippopotamus, let alone multiple ones?”. 80 kg of grass would require a huge plot of land. However, zoos aim to optimize land usage which goes against a hippo’s natural requirements.
This is why captive hippos eat a slightly different diet, usually comprising alfalfa hay and leafy vegetables like kale, romaine lettuce and cabbage. However, the diet of hippos in zoos varies between institutions, because not all foods are available everywhere.
The staff at the zoo will also feed them carrots or apples as a treat food. Hippos love fruits in much the same way that we love candy.
Click here to watch a video of a hippopotamus devouring a watermelon in one crunch!
Hippos’ Meat-Eating Behavior
Many websites claim hippos are herbivores, but they are completely wrong. Hippos actually eat more meat than is commonly thought.
More specifically, this study published in 2015 tells us: “Hippos are facultative carnivores that consume flesh and intestinal tissues from the carcasses of other animals.”
Hippos’ meat-eating behavior has been observed for a long time, with one of the first observations in 1901.
The study mentioned above found that hippos consume mostly muscle and intestinal tissues from carcasses. While they will also eat other parts of the animal (like bone or skin) they will not eat the stomach contents.
This behavior is most often observed in male hippos, and may be related to social dominance or mating behaviors (such as increased levels of testosterone).
The study doesn’t tell us exactly how much meat a hippo consumes in one sitting.
Please note: In case you were wondering, hippos do not eat humans. But if you are nearby, they’ll see you as an invader. Since they are extremely aggressive and territorial, it’s best to stay away from them. And don’t think you can run away from them. They look fat and goofy, but they can run extremely fast. You will not get away from a charging hippo unless you are in a vehicle.
Hippo Digestion: Where does all that Grass go?
So, where does all that grass go? Hippos have a slow digestive system. Their stomachs can hold up to 80kg of grass, plants, and other vegetation. This food can take up to three days to digest, so the hippo is in a constant cycle of grazing and digesting.
Hippos have 3 separate chambers in their stomachs:
- The first chamber is the parietal blind sac. This chamber is empty most of the time, but it secretes a mucus that coats the food as it passes through the other two chambers.
- The next chamber is the actual stomach, which can expand to hold up to 80 L of food and water (for comparison, the human stomach can hold about 1L of food!). This is where most of the digestion takes place. Microbes inside the hippo help break down cellulose from plant fibers into usable sugars. These microbes are bacteria which specialize in breaking down complex carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids into simple molecules that can be absorbed by the intestine.
- The third chamber is called the glandular stomach. Here, glands secrete digestive juices that include bicarbonate into the stomach to neutralize any acids coming from the previous chamber. The glandular stomach also absorbs some nutrients, but its main purpose is to digest food further and help with absorption in the small intestine.
All of this takes time. Food can take up to three days to pass through a hippo’s stomach. That means that a hippo can eat grass in the morning and still be digesting it by the evening.
While it is commonly believed that hippos are herbivores, their diet does include meat. They eat mostly muscle and intestinal tissues from carcasses. Sometimes, they will also consume bone or skin of the animal as well. However, they most graze on grass and take a long time to digest any food they have consumed via their multiple stomach chambers.
Hippos are native to sub-Saharan Africa but they have mostly disappeared from Eastern parts of their traditional range due to hunting for meat and loss of habitat.
Despite their peaceful and goofy looks, hippos are among the most violent and territorial animals. There is a wealth of videos online where you can see them dismembering other animals and chasing people. A fight between hippos is a sight to behold.
So, if you are around them, it’s best to stay away and observe from a good distance. Remember, you will not be able to run away from them. They may look slow and clumsy, but they can run extremely fast when the situation requires it.