Although they can be swift on land, the gargantuan body of Hippopotamus amphibius is designed for water. The short legs don’t get in the way when they are wallowing in the mud and shallow water. They can also sink their barrel-shaped bodies and walk along the river floor.
Hippos mate and give birth in the water. Even their ears, eyes and nostrils are high on their head for easy submersion. They sleep in the water and come up for air without ever waking. For this semi-aquatic mammal with thin, hairless skin, the water prevents overheating and dehydration under the hot African sun.
There are some species of hippo that have become extinct, but there are still populations of hippos in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Tanzania and Zambia. Their conservation status is delicate, listed as Vulnerable Threatened.
In the early 20th century hippos were considered close in ancestry to the pig. They roll around in mud and grunt like a pig, and there is a physical resemblance as well. But further studies of their DNA and fossil records classified them in the whale family. I have spent many glorious hours observing hippos on land and in water, and the water is where they luxuriate.
You wouldn’t think hippopotamus are fast when you see their short, stubby legs carrying over 3,000 pounds of body mass; yet they can outrun humans at 19 mph. Hippos are not only fast, but they are aggressive, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous. I have watched more than one wildlife guide shudder as they relay the story of a distant cousin, friend, or relative who was killed by a hippo. The hippo is responsible for more human deaths than any other mammal in Africa.
In their territory, pods of hippos are commonly seen during the day where they rest together at a mud hole, lake or in rivers. Watching one roll over like a beached whale to moisten its back is one of the most beautiful slow dances I have ever seen. The first time I observed this action I thought there was a fight brewing, so much splashing and abrupt activity. But it was never a fight, it was simply one colossal hippo turning over resulting in muddy water ripples and sloshes.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander