In Kenya, Hippos are hugely underrated animals that have exceptional attributes. They mostly occur in the wild, and their territories sometimes overlap with human habitats. Typical places to spot them are Naivasha, Baringo, Kisumu, and parts of Central and Coastal Kenya. At Haller Park, they stage a feeding show where you can watch their interesting feeding style. Hippos are as scary as they are fascinating. Here are a few surprising facts about hippos you might not have known of. Did you know some refer to them as ‘river horses?’
1. They are Semi-aquatic
Most people believe that hippos are aquatic animals. However, they are semi-aquatic or amphibious. This means that they exist in both water and land. In Kenya, you will always spot these huge animals submerged in a lake or river, occasionally coming to land. They can stay in the water for up to sixteen hours during the day and only emerge towards the land at night to keep their bodies cooled.
2. They Mate and Give Birth in Water
Hippos are mammalian animals that mate and give birth in water. This sets them apart from most amphibious animals, which do the opposite. A mother hippo about to give birth usually sets herself apart and delivers her baby in isolation. She then pushes the baby towards the water surface for its first breath before letting it get back into the water. The infant also suckles inside the water.
3. Hippos Cannot Swim
I find it very interesting that an animal that spends almost 75% of its life in water cannot swim. However, as nature would have it, these fascinating animals cannot actually swim. This fact is not common knowledge for most people, including fishermen and boat operators in lakes where these animals exist. I remember going on a school trip to Lake Baringo, and the boat driver kept telling us that the hippos swim under the boats on the lake and capsize them at will. The truth, however, is that hippos usually stand on their feet in parts of the river or lake that are just deep enough to allow them to completely submerge themselves. In the cases where they are in deep water, they walk on the river or lakebed, occasionally leaping to the surface to breathe.
4. Related to Dolphins and Whales
This is one of the hard-to-believe facts about hippos. If I were to guess, I would say hippos are relatives to cows, rhinos or warthogs. Unfortunately, none of these guesses is correct. According to scientific research, a hippo’s closest relatives are the dolphins and whales. Hippos, however, evolved over time and developed feet that allowed them to explore the land. This should explain why these mammals are so fond of the water.
5. Have Fascinating Mouths
A hippo’s mouth is its most potent weapon. Not only does it have huge and strong teeth, but it can also stretch to almost 180 degrees when open. That means that it can practically swallow a midsized human being in one gulp! Hippos open their mouths in a yawn-like gesture. However, while humans yawn as a sign of hunger or fatigue, hippos yawn as a warning sign. They do this when they sight a threat. So if you ever find yourself near a yawning hippo, try to get away from it as fast as possible. Another interesting fact about their mouths is that their canines are made of ivory. This makes them vulnerable to parties that trade ivory.
6. They Produce Natural Sunscreen
Would it not be nice if you could produce your own natural sunscreen? Imagine all the money you would save! Hippos naturally secrete a reddish substance from their skin pores, which then protects them from any sun damage, especially when they are basking out of the water. This ‘blood sweat’ also acts as an antibiotic that deters any bacterial growth on their skin. Since hippos have little to no hair, microorganisms can easily infect their skin. However, the red secretion keeps their bodies safe and healthy.
7. They Eat a lot at Night
One of the mysterious facts about Hippos is that despite spending most of the day in the water, they do not eat aquatic vegetation. Instead, they wait until night when they graze in the surrounding environments. They mainly eat grass, however, sometimes they can implement fruits into their diet. An adult hippo can eat up to 60 kilogrammes of grass a night! That is almost the weight of an average human being. In rare cases, hippos can eat carcasses of dead animals, and sometimes they even result in cannibalism. However, scientists state that these scenarios usually indicate some sort of environmental or health stress. In theory, hippos are herbivorous animals. In cases with sparse food, hippos can go up to three weeks without food.
8. They are Social but very Territorial
This is one of those facts about Hippos that almost sounds like a paradox. Hippos exist in pods of between 10 and 200 individuals depending on their population and the size of the water body. These groupings usually have one dominant male, submissive bachelors and females. The dominant male spends most of the time alone and has all mating rights. When a bachelor wants to challenge his dominance, they must fight, sometimes to death, before the winner becomes the new leader. New mothers stay with their young ones for the first months before allowing them to interact with the rest of the herd. Some pods even have nurseries for the young ones, guarded by two or three adults. Hippos are only territorial in water. They graze together when they come to land.
9. Do not Breathe in Water
Hippos have their eyes and ears strategically positioned at the top of their heads. Therefore, when they are in the water, they can still breathe as long as they keep the top of their heads at the surface. When they are fully submerged, hippos have membranes that automatically cover their eyes and ears to prevent the water from entering their skull. These membranes are present even in baby hippos. Hippos can stay underwater without breathing for a maximum of five to seven minutes. They then go to the water surface to breathe before diving back again. When sleeping, a hippo subconsciously remembers to take these leaps without waking up!
10. Hippos are Huge and Aggressive
Hippos are the third-largest land mammals after elephants and the white rhino. An adult male hippo can grow to a stunning two tonnes and a female to 1,700 kilogrammes. A new infant hippo weighs around 30-60 kilogrammes and then grows sporadically from there. Due to their huge sizes, hippos do not have many predators. In rare cases, lions, crocodiles and hyenas prey on hippo infants and sick adults. However, usually, a healthy adult will fight and even kill its predators. Hippos are also naturally aggressive and untameable animals. They are very short-tempered. When adult hippos fight, they often crash and kill much smaller infants. Hippos even capsize and attack boats that get too close to their territories. In Africa, Hippos cause the deaths of up to 700 people every year! In Kenya, Naivasha and the Tana are some of the areas that have frequent human-hippo conflicts.
11. Benefit from Mutualism
Despite their notorious reputation, hippos can calm down and behave when need be. This is evident when the hippos go to ‘cleaning stations’ present in most aquatic ecosystems. The hippos approach these areas and open their mouths as a sign of readiness. Different cleaning fish then proceed to enter and clean the hippo’s mouth and teeth. They remove and feed on the bacteria and other microorganisms hiding in the mammal’s mouth. At the end of the day, the hippo gets clean, and the fish get food – a symbiotic relationship.
Hippopotamuses are indeed fascinating animals in Kenya and the rest of the world. They are very sturdy and live long lives. Knowing these amazing facts about them, you can now spot and observe their behaviour with an enlightened eye the next time you see them. Do you know of any other interesting facts about hippos? Share them in the comment box below. We would love to hear them.