home   about   search

biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Hippopotamus amphibius (Hippopotamus)

seekoei [Afrikaans]; Grossflusspferd [German]; hippopotame [French]; kiboko [Swahili]; imvubu [isiNdebele] [isiXhosa] [isiZulu] [siSwati]; kubu [Sepedi] [Sesotho] [Setswana] [Lozi]; mvuu, ngwindi [Shona]; mpfubu, mpfuvu [Xitsonga]; mvuvhu [Tshivenda]; unvuva [Yei]; !Khaos [Nama] [Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Cetartiodactyla (even-toed ungulates and cetaceans) > Whippomorpha > Ancodonta > Hippopotamidae

Hippopotamus amphibius (Hippopotamus) Hippopotamus amphibius (Hippopotamus)
Hippopotamus. [photo Callie de Wet ] Hippopotamus. [photo Callie de Wet ]
Hippopotamus amphibius (Hippopotamus)

Hippopotamus bulls fighting. [photo Callie de Wet ]


Hippopotamus derives its name from the Greek for “river horse”. It is a large, barrel –shaped animal with naked skin, grayish black in colour with pink tinges at the folds, near the ears and eyes and on the underside. The legs are short and stocky, ending in four toed feet. The head is massive with a broad muzzle with large tusk like incisors and canines. The huge mouth is opened wide to expose the tusks in display and combat. As an adaptation to its amphibious way of life the nostrils are located on the top of the snout.


Height at shoulder 1.5 m; weight range 1 000 - 2 000 kg (male) and 1 000 – 1 700 (female).

Dental formula

I C P M = 36-40

Distribution and habitat

A patchy but widespread distribution South of the Sahara. In the southern African subregion it occurs in the extreme northern and the eastern areas. It requires sufficient water to allow submergence and prefers permanent water bodies with a sandy substrate.

General behaviour

The hippo is semi- aquatic and spends most of the day lying in water or on the river bank. They emerge at night to graze and may travel as far as 30 km during a night. They travel to the feeding grounds along easily recognized set pathways. An adult hippo can remain submerged for 6 minutes, they have a trotting swimming action and “trot” along submerged pathways underwater. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in the Okavango delta where the underwater pathways are clearly visible from the air. When submerged only the nostrils, eyes and ears can be seen.

Skin glands exude an oily secretion over the body (called a “blood sweat” because of its pinkish colour) this protects the skin from drying out.

Hippo normally occur in herds (or schools) of 10 to 15 animals, although larger groupings and solitary animals are also quite common. Herds consist of cows, sub-adults and calves, with a dominant bull. The bull marks his territory by scattering dung with rapid flicking of his tail. The territories tend to be narrowest at the water and widen out on the feeding grounds. The territoriality is also the strongest at the water. Bulls are aggressive to anything entering their territory, including other hippos, other animals and boats or canoes. It is for this reason that the hippo has earned the reputation as the “biggest killer” in Africa, as they will intercept canoes and are occasionally involved in instances where unobservant swimmers are attacked. In areas where hippo occur naturally in the rivers, the local people are very wary and take extreme care to determine if any hippo are in the immediate vicinity.


Hippos are selective grazers, feeding predominantly on grasses.


After a gestation period of 22 months, hippos give birth on land or in shallow water the calf weighs about 30 kg is kept separate from the herd for the first fortnight. The calf is born hindlegs first and is capable of going into deep water shortly after birth. The calves are threatened by crocodiles and large predators such as hyaena and lion. Mothers are protective of their young and usually graze in the close vicinity. Like adults young hippo cannot float, when in the water they will often rest their heads on the backs of other hippo or sit on their mother’s back.

Life span

60 years and more than 80 years in captivity


 The conservation of hippo depends on it having access to grassland and water. They are protected within national parks but outside the boundaries they are hunted for meat and their large canines and incisors. Hippo do conflict with humans as they raid and damage crops and are also occasionally responsible for killing people. Currently while there are conservation concerns in certain parts of Africa and their total numbers are declining, they are not regarded as threatened.

Text by Denise Hamerton