The hippopotamus is semi-aquatic, inhabiting rivers, lakes and mangrove swamps where territorial bulls preside over a stretch of river and groups of 5 to 30 females and young. During the day they remain cool by staying in the water or mud; reproduction and childbirth both occur in water. They emerge at dusk to graze on grass. While hippopotamuses rest near each other in the water, grazing is a solitary activity and hippos are not territorial on land.
Despite their physical resemblance to pigs and other terrestrial even-toed ungulates, their closest living relatives are cetaceans (whales, porpoises, etc.) from which they diverged about 55 million years ago. The common ancestor of whales and hippos split from other even-toed ungulates around 60 million years ago.
The hippopotamus is recognizable by its barrel-shaped torso, enormous mouth and teeth, nearly hairless body, stubby legs and tremendous size. It is the third largest land mammal by weight (between 1½ and 3 tonnes), behind the white rhinoceros (1½ to 3½ tonnes) and the three species of elephant (3 to 9 tonnes). The hippopotamus is one of the largest quadrupeds (four legged mammals). Despite its stocky shape and short legs, it can easily outrun a human. Hippos have been clocked at 30 km/h (19 mph) over short distances. The hippopotamus is one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and is often regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. There are an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 hippos throughout Sub-Saharan Africa; Zambia (40,000) and Tanzania (20,000–30,000) possess the largest populations. They are still threatened by habitat loss and poaching for their meat and ivory canine teeth.
The word "hippopotamus" is derived from the ancient Greek ἱπποπόταμος, hippopotamos, from ἵππος, hippos, "horse", and ποταμός, potamos, "river", meaning "horse of the river". In English, the plural is hippopotamuses, but hippopotami is also used; hippos can be used as a short plural. Hippopotamuses are gregarious, living in groups of up to 30 animals; such a group is called a Pod, Herd, Dale, or Bloat.
Hippopotamuses are among the largest living mammals; only elephants and some rhinoceroses and whales are heavier. They can live in the water or on land. Their specific gravity allows them to sink and walk or run along the bottom of a river. Hippos are considered megafauna, but unlike all other African megafauna, hippos have adapted for a semi-aquatic life in freshwater lakes and rivers.
Because of their enormous size, hippopotamuses are difficult to weigh in the wild. Most estimates of the weight come from culling operations that were carried out in the 1960s. The average weights for adult males ranged between 1,500–1,800 kg (3,300–4,000 lb). Females are smaller than their male counterparts, with average weights measuring between 1,300–1,500 kg (2,900–3,300 lb). Older males can get much larger, reaching at least 3,200 kg (7,100 lb) and occasionally weighing 4,500 kg (9,900 lb). Male hippos appear to continue growing throughout their lives; females reach a maximum weight at around age 25.
On the National Geographic Channel television program, "Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr", Dr. Brady Barr measured the bite force of an adult female hippo at 8100 N (1821 lbf); Barr also attempted to measure the bite pressure of an adult male hippo, but had to abandon the attempt due to the male's aggressiveness. Hippopotamus teeth sharpen themselves as they grind together.
Hippos measure 3.3 to 5.2 meters (11 to 17 ft) long, including a tail of about 56 centimeters (22 in) in length and average about 1.5 meters (5 ft) tall at the shoulder. The range of hippopotamus sizes overlaps with the range of the White Rhinoceros; use of different metrics makes it unclear which is the largest land animal after elephants. Even though they are bulky animals, hippopotamuses can run faster than a human on land. Estimates of their running speed vary from 30 km/h (18 mph) to 40 km/h (25 mph), or even 50 km/h (30 mph). The hippo can maintain these higher speeds for only a few hundred meters.
The eyes, ears, and nostrils of hippos are placed high on the roof of the skull. This allows them to be in the water with most of their body submerged in the waters and mud of tropical rivers to stay cool and prevent sunburn. Their skeletal structure is graviportal, adapted to carrying the animals' enormous weight. Hippopotamuses have small legs (relative to other megafauna) because the water in which they live reduces the weight burden. Unlike most other semi-aquatic animals, the hippopotamus has very little hair.
Their skin secretes a natural sunscreen substance which is red-colored. The secretion is sometimes referred to as "blood sweat," but is neither blood nor sweat. This secretion is initially colorless and turns red-orange within minutes, eventually becoming brown. Two distinct pigments have been identified in the secretions, one red (hipposudoric acid) and one orange (norhipposudoric acid). The two pigments are highly acidic compounds. Both pigments inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria; as well, the light absorption of both pigments peaks in the ultraviolet range, creating a sunscreen effect. All hippos, even those with different diets, secrete the pigments, so it does not appear that food is the source of the pigments. Instead, the animals may synthesize the pigments from precursors such as the amino acid tyrosine.
Hippos spend most of their days wallowing in the water or the mud, with the other members of their pod. The water serves to keep their body temperature down, and to keep their skin from drying out. With the exception of eating, most of hippopotamuses' lives —from childbirth, fighting with other hippos, to reproduction— occur in the water.
Hippos leave the water at dusk and travel inland, sometimes up to 8 kilometers (5 mi), to graze on short grass, their main source of food. They spend four to five hours grazing and can consume 68 kilograms (150 lb) of grass each night. Like almost any herbivore, they will consume many other plants if presented with them, but their diet in nature consists almost entirely of grass, with only minimal consumption of aquatic plants. Hippos have (rarely) been filmed eating carrion, usually close to the water. There are other reports of meat-eating, and even cannibalism and predation. The stomach anatomy of a hippo is not suited to carnivory, and meat-eating is likely caused by aberrant behavior or nutritional stress.
The diet of hippos consists mostly of terrestrial grasses, even though they spend most of their time in the water. Most of their defecation occurs in the water, creating allochthonous deposits of organic matter along the river beds. These deposits have an unclear ecological function. Because of their size and their habit of taking the same paths to feed, hippos can have a significant impact on the land they walk across, both by keeping the land clear of vegetation and depressing the ground. Over prolonged periods hippos can divert the paths of swamps and channels.
Adult hippos move at speeds up to 8 km/h (5 mph) in water. Adult hippos typically resurface to breathe every three to five minutes. The young have to breathe every two to three minutes. The process of surfacing and breathing is automatic, and even a hippo sleeping underwater will rise and breathe without waking. A hippo closes its nostrils when it submerges.
Hippopotamuses are territorial only in water, where a bull presides over a small stretch of river, on average 250 meters in length, and containing ten females. The largest pods can contain up to 100 hippos. Other bachelors are allowed in a bull's stretch, as long as they behave submissively toward the bull. The territories of hippos exist to establish mating rights. Within the pods, the hippos tend to segregate by gender. Bachelors will lounge near other bachelors, females with other females, and the bull on his own. When hippos emerge from the water to graze, they do so individually.
Hippopotamuses appear to communicate verbally, through grunts and bellows, and it is thought that they may practice echolocation, but the purpose of these vocalizations is currently unknown. Hippos have the unique ability to hold their head partially above the water and send out a cry that travels through both water and air; hippos above and under water will respond.
Hippopotamuses are by nature very aggressive animals, especially when young calves are present. Frequent targets of their aggression include crocodiles, which often inhabit the same river habitat as hippos. Nile crocodiles, lions, and spotted hyenas are known to prey on young hippos. Hippos are very aggressive towards humans, whom they commonly attack whether in boats or on land with no apparent provocation. They are widely considered to be one of the most dangerous large animals in Africa.