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Hippopotamus: Habitat, Lifespan & Adaptation

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

What do you know about the hippopotamus? In this lesson, we'll discuss this interesting animal and by looking at its habitat, social life, and unique adaptations it has for its environment, you will be more familiar with this massive animal!

What is a Hippopotamus?

You are likely familiar with the hippopotamus, an African animal that in my opinion is pretty darn cute. Hippos are short and stocky, have small ears and a BIG mouth with some funny-looking chompers inside. They are the second largest land animal, coming in just after elephants.

The hippopotamus name comes from the Greek word for 'water-' or 'river-horse', and this suits hippos perfectly since they spend a considerable amount of their time in the water. They don't do this to live up to a name though, they do it because their skin needs to be kept wet or they face the risk of dehydration.

Hippos have very large mouths with impressive teeth.
Hippo with its mouth open

Hippos are social creatures and live in groups ranging from a dozen to several hundred animals. There are several females and males in a group, but only one dominant male that mates with the females. Hippo babies gestate, or develop in the womb, for almost the same amount of time as a human baby, but when born will be about 10 times the size! Life expectancy for a hippo is 36 years, but that's only if a baby hippo survives the crocodiles, hyenas, and other predators in the African wilderness, as well as disease, drought, and other life challenges.

The hippopotamus used to be found all over Africa but because of human development, the places hippos can live has been greatly reduced. Instead, they are now mostly found in East Africa. There is a second species of hippo found on the continent called the pygmy hippopotamus, but they are much smaller than the hippos we have been talking about so far. These guys are rare and are limited to small forested areas in West Africa.

Hungry Hippos

Hippos are active night creatures, walking and grazing on land during the cooler evening temperatures. They leave the water around sunset and may eat around 80-90 pounds of grass a night. This sounds like a lot of food but it's just over half of what a cow eats in terms of percent of body weight. Hippos can store two days' worth of that grass in their stomachs, and if necessary, go without eating for three whole weeks.

Hippos are social animals, and graze on grass.
Two hippos grazing

Hippo Adaptations

It turns out that hippos don't just like water, they are well adapted to it. Because a hippo's eyes, nose, and ears sit on top of its head, it can sink the rest of its body down into the water and almost disappear. If it decides to go completely covert and put its head under water too, the ears and nose close to keep water from getting inside. Their eyes have a clear membrane covering them that works like a pair of goggles, keeping the water out while still letting them see.

Hippos have unique adaptations that allow them to submerge almost their entire bodies.
A hippo with its head above water

Hippos can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes while under water, but I think the most amazing adaptation is one that allows them to ''sleep''underwater! They have a body reflex that while sleeping, bobs them up to the surface to take a breath, and then sink back underwater. And they do all of this without waking up! Hippo's are very good swimmers and can also walk under water. Surprisingly, they are very fast runners on land, sometimes getting up to 30 miles per hour. So if you see a hippo coming towards you, you better get moving in the opposite direction because even though they are cute they are very aggressive animals!

A hippo can hold its breath for up to 30 minutes under water.
A hippo completely underwater

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