Hippopotamus: Definition, Diet, Teeth & Facts

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson we'll be learning about an aquatic giant, the hippopotamus. Here, we'll cover what it likes to eat, its unique dental structure and interesting facts about its lifestyle.

What Is a Hippopotamus?

When you think of the largest animals on the African savanna, an elephant probably comes to mind. Although this animal is certainly quite large, another aquatic animal comes in a close second. The hippopotamus, a large water-dwelling mammal in Africa, weighs in at up to four tons, that's nearly double the weight of an average sized car! Imagine stacking two cars on top of each other and you have the heft of a hippopotamus.

This enormous creature can grow up to 11.5 feet long and reach 5 feet high. This gray animal lacks fur and has thin, leathery skin on most of its body. With stubby legs and a thick body, it lumbers through cool waterways during the day.

Habitat

This amazing creature lives in rivers, lakes and flooded grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. It spends so much time in water that its name actually means 'water horse'. In addition to the common large hippopotamus, there is also a smaller species, pygmy hippopotamus that lives in a very limited range of West Africa. During the day, the hippopotamus stays in shallow, flooded areas. Hippopotamuses usually walk through shallow waters, but they are so heavy they can even sink to the bottom, holding their breath for several minutes.

A hippopotamus lounges in the flooded plains of Botswana
hippopotamus in the water

Diet

Although we usually associate carnivores with being big and strong, the hippopotamus is strictly vegetarian, or herbivorous. During the brutal heat of the African sun, they spend most of their time in water, trying to keep cool. But at night, the hippopotamus emerges from its aquatic habitat and travels in search of food on land.

Hippopotamuses sometimes travel six miles at night in search of grass for grazing. With their lawnmower faces, they can eat 80 pounds of grass each night. For comparison, a human might eat a quarter pound of meat in a larger meal each evening. Imagine eating more than 300 times as much food! Hippopotamuses intensive food intake can create conflicts with local farmers, who plant crops for their own use.

Teeth

As an herbivore, you might expect flat teeth, like you'd see in a horse, designed for crushing plant material. Hippopotamuses have this type of teeth and can pack some serious bite. Hippopotamuses are extremely aggressive and will get into fights with other hippopotamuses in their school over space, mates, or food. They are quite dangerous for humans as well and should not be approached in the wild.

Their jaws unhinge to a full 150 degrees, which allows them to bare their incredibly sharp teeth during displays of dominance. Inside this frightening view are large incisors and canine teeth reaching over a foot in length.

Hippopotamus mouth and teeth
mouth and teeth

Adaptations

Hippopotamuses dwell in the hot African sun all day. Although their aquatic lifestyle helps, they also have other adaptations, or traits that help them survive. First, hippopotamuses are known for their 'blood sweat', a red secretion that resembles blood. But unlike the legends, the substance isn't actually blood. It's a red, oily liquid that helps protect them from the sun, like sunblock, and helps prevent infections.

A mother and calf are covered in red sweat to protect them from the sun
red sweat

When you jump into a pool, you might hold your nose and close your eyes. Water in these sensory organs is not a fun experience. Hippopotamuses aren't a fan of this either and have natural adaptations to keep water out. Their eyes, ears, and nose are positioned on the top of their head, allowing them to be nearly fully submerged but still able to sense their environment. When they do decide to go under, their ears and nostrils seal shut to keep water out.

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