Some hippo tales

Mar. 27, 2013 @ 03:40 AM

Over the years, mystery has surrounded the hippopotamus. Known for its gapping jaw, massive size, and aggressive nature, even the animal’s name led to some confusion. We now know it has a Greek origin meaning "river horse," and not "Rush Limbaugh" as some liberal commentators would like to believe.

When early European explorers first stumbled on the hippopotamus wallowing in African rivers, they were puzzled by these amazing animals. For instance, the hippos were observed oozing a red liquid from their skins and, until many years later, it was widely believed that they actually sweated blood.

We now know the glands on their skin release a pinkish-colored, sticky oil that may look like blood, but actually acts as a sunscreen and moisturizer.

To the casual observer, hippos may not appear to be aggressive creatures. But they are far from the sluggish, gentle giants we see playfully splashing in a zoo pond. The hippo has earned the respect of the African people with whom he shares the river, and his reputation as a killer is well deserved. In fact, more people have been killed by hippos than by any other savage beast on the African continent excluding, perhaps, former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Two species of hippo are found in Africa: the familiar large common hippo and the rarer pygmy hippo. Neither are meat eaters. Common hippos are fiercely territorial, which explains their tendency to occasionally snap at passing humans, who are merely viewed as annoying intruders. Being vegetarian, the smaller pygmy hippo is therefore named for its size, and not because it feeds on diminutive natives of the region.

The common hippo is one of the largest and heaviest land animals, and adult males can weigh well over 4,000 lbs. Despite their size, they are surprisingly agile and could still easily outrun Rosie O’Donnell as she emerged from a binge in a McDonald’s restaurant.

By contrast, the smaller pygmy hippo is a solitary animal, inhabiting rainforests and swamps. It was so reclusive that it remained undiscovered until the late 1800's. In 1927, Harvey Firestone (yes, the tire man - he owned a large rubber plantation in Liberia) presented President Calvin Coolidge with a gift of a pygmy hippo named Billy.

Bill, it turned out, was suitably named. He was very sociable with females of his species (although none appear to have been named Monica), and most pygmy hippos in U.S. zoos were his descendants.

Hippos live in herds of 10 - 30 animals and spend most of their days splashing around in rivers to keep cool. As twilight creeps across the African plains, the herds emerge from the water at dusk and wander inland for miles to graze on grasses. But life for the hippo is not all swimming and feasting. Things can quickly get ugly in the herd.

When two male hippos face off, they not only hurl dung at each other with their spinning tails, but they may attack viciously. In fights between rival males, hippos can inflict serious injuries, often ripping off an opponent's ear with their long canine teeth. A similar technique was adapted to human combative rituals by Mike Tyson some years ago.

Hippos also do some remarkable things in water. Most begin life underwater, where they are born. Immediately after birth, they swim to the surface for their first breath. Then they submerge again to nurse. Soon, they learn to hold their breath and walk gracefully along the river bed underwater.

And, incredibly, adult hippos can sleep underwater during the day. They have learned to surface automatically to breathe periodically, without disturbing their sleep.

Coincidently, during lengthy debates, members of the State Legislature have been using a similar technique for years.


Thomas' features and columns have appeared in more than 300 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at his blog: