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Hippo Hullabalooza!

  • 06/19/09
  • Erin

I have received quite a few emails from people asking about one of Africa’s most treasured and famous residents: the hippo.

“Can hippos swim?”

--Scott- Las Vegas, NV, U.S.A.

Despite the fact that they spend the great majority of their day in water, adult hippos cannot truly ‘swim.’ The common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious) is enormous, with adult males sometimes reaching a weight of over 3,000 pounds. Being such a large, heavy animal, it is nearly impossible for hippos to possess the buoyancy necessary to swim freely throughout the water. Instead, when adult hippos ‘swim’ they actually sink and walk or trot along the bottom, using the water’s natural buoyancy and their feet to propel them forward. Pretty much the same as when you’re in the pool and you use your feet to ‘walk.’ Underwater, they are surprisingly quick and graceful.


“I recently read an article in my local paper about the birth of a hippo in India. Are hippos native to India? I thought hippos were only native to Africa?”

Robert- Tampa, FL, U.S.A.

Hippos are, indeed, native to Africa and are found nowhere else in the world. In researching your question, Robert, I found the recent article in which you are referring regarding the birth of a new calf by the 'hippo' Hartali (see the video here) . Although referred to as a 'hippo,' Hartali and her calf are not hippos but Indian Rhinos. The only reason I can think of that Hartali and her calf are referred to as ‘hippos’ is because in Hindi (which is just one of the 18 official languages of India), the word for Hippo is ‘Jal Hasti’ meaning ‘Water Elephant,’ which I suppose could be seen as a deviation of the Hippo’s scientific name, which translates to ‘river horse’ or ‘water horse.’ This still doesn’t really explain why rhinos are being called ‘hippos’ but in any case, Hartali and her calf are, indeed, Indian rhinos and not hippos.

“Is it true that hippos sweat blood?”

-Susan, Norfolk, VA, U.S.A.

The common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious) does not sweat blood…they don’t even have sweat glands! Instead, to protect their skin from sunburn and infection, they have mucous glands that secrete a special substance to coat the skin. Because this natural sunscreen is reddish in color, it is sometimes called ‘blood-sweat’ but in actuality it isn’t blood or sweat--it’s a modified mucous product.

Bonus Fact:

For those of you who had your thinking caps on you may have started wondering, ‘Gadzooks! If hippos don’t have sweat glands then how do they stay cool in the hot African sun?’ But luckily those of you who had your double thinking caps answered, ‘They live in the water!’ This is true: to keep themselves from getting hot and bothered in the African sun, hippos are mostly nocturnal, coming out of the water to feed on grasses at night.


About the Author

Heading up AWF’s membership desk for the past eight years, Erin Keyes has amassed quite a bit of knowledge about Africa’s wildlife and unique wild lands. She’s also an expert on AWF’s membership benefits and programs. She started this blog to share what’s she’s learned and to give AWF supporters another forum for asking questions. So, if you have questions about African wildlife, AWF’s work in Africa, or all the ways you can help Africa’s wildlife and unique wild lands endure, now’s your chance – just Ask Erin.

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