What Do Hippos Eat? The Diet of the Africa’s Icon

The hippopotamus is one of Africa’s most iconic animals. They are one of the wild images of sub-Saharan Africa’s freshwater lakes, rivers, and marshlands. While their semi-aquatic lifestyle is known, their specific diet habits can interest wildlife enthusiasts and researchers. 

What do hippos eat? This article aims to explore the dietary habits of these creatures.

Hippos eat grass

Description of Hippos’ Natural Habitat

Hippos predominantly inhabit the freshwater ecosystems of sub-Saharan Africa. Marshlands provide a refuge from the scorching heat and act as a safety area from potential predators.

Hippos spend most of their days submerged, with only their nostrils, eyes, and ears breaking the surface. This image is often associated with the African landscape.

What Do Hippos Eat?

Hippos’ main food is grass! And their preference for water habitats is closely tied to this primary food source. 

Grasslands are often found at these aquatic areas’ peripheries, allowing hippos to venture out during nighttime to graze. The proximity of these feeding grounds to water bodies ensures that hippos can quickly retreat to the safety of water if threatened.

The water’s edge is often a hub of biodiversity, attracting various species and, on rare occasions, providing hippos with opportunistic feeding options. 

Amount of Grass Consumed Daily

An adult hippo consumes 30 to 40 kg of grass daily. This might seem like a large quantity, but when you consider their body weight, which can exceed 1500 kilograms, in mature males, it becomes apparent that this daily intake is essential to maintain their energy levels and overall health.

Hippos should consume an amount of grass around 2% to 3% of their body weight.

Role of Aquatic Plants in a Hippo’s Diet

While hippos predominantly rely on terrestrial grass for sustenance, they have been studied feeding rarely on aquatic plants, particularly during certain seasons or in regions where traditional grasslands might be less abundant.

Some aquatic flora, such as water hyacinths, can sometimes supplement their diet.

Hippos: Nocturnal Feeders

In the morning, while the African sun blazes, hippos protect themselves in the cooling of water bodies. However, as dusk descends, they leave their aquatic environment to graze the adjacent pastures. 

This nocturnal feeding pattern allows them to avoid the scorching daytime temperatures and reduces the risk of sunburn on their sensitive skin. During these excursions, which can last several hours, hippos might travel several kilometers in search of prime grazing grounds.

What do hippos eat?

Hippos – The Importance of Teeth

Hippopotamuses possess 36 teeth, made up of 8 incisors, four canines, 12 premolars, and 12 molars. Interestingly, some hippos might have an extra count of teeth as certain deciduous or ‘baby’ teeth can stay into adulthood. 

They have flat-ridged molars and premolars used primarily for grinding and crushing food. However, excessive grinding can lead to wear and tear, compromising their eating ability and potentially leading to malnourishment.

The Role of Incisors and Canine Teeth in Hippos

While most of their teeth serve dietary purposes, the incisors and canines of hippos have different functions. These teeth are primarily tools for fighting and self-defense against potential threats. 

Their lower canines are very sharp, reaching lengths of approximately 50 cm. Meanwhile, their incisors can achieve up to 40 cm. The continuous grazing action of the hippos ensures these teeth remain sharp.

The Hippo’s jaw has an opening between 150 to 180 degreesHippos’ jaws have a bite strength of 1800 psi (pound per square inch); they overshadow the bite force of both lions (650 psi) and polar bears (1200 psi). 

The lethal combination of the Hippo’s razor-sharp teeth and formidable jaw strength can easily crush bones and penetrate other animals when fighting.

Hippos Cannibalism

The diet of the hippopotamus is marked by an intriguing and sometimes controversial facet: the occasional consumption of animal matter, including instances of cannibalism

While cannibalism is generally rare, it’s not absent, and hippos are no exception. However, it is essential to note that this behavior has a significant downside: the high risk of spreading infectious diseases.

Hippos Consuming Small Animals Carcasses

While rare, there have been documented instances of hippos consuming animal matter. These occurrences often involve hippos eating small animals like fish or birds or scavenging on carcasses they encounter during their nocturnal forages. 

Reasons for such behavior

  1. Opportunism: Like many animals, hippos can be opportunistic feeders.
  2. Scarcity of food: In times of drought or other ecological stressors, when their preferred grasses become scarce, hippos might eat other protein sources to ensure survival.

Conflicts with Humans: Occasional Foraging on Cultivated Crops

As human populations expand and agricultural activities intensify, the boundaries between wild habitats and cultivated lands become increasingly thin. 

This overlap can lead hippos, in their search for food, to wander into farmlands. Crops such as maize, sugar cane, and other cultivated plants can be particularly enticing for them. 

Such conflicts underline the broader challenges of human-wildlife coexistence in shared landscapes.

Human Influence on the Hippos’ Diet

As human populations expand and natural landscapes undergo transformation, the delicate balance of ecosystems is inevitably disrupted. Like many other species, the hippopotamus faces the brunt of these changes, particularly in its dietary habits, sources, and general survival.

The survival of hippos is closely intertwined with the well-being of the ecosystems in which they reside. There is a potential cascade of effects on the ecosystem stemming from threats to hippos due to climate change and human impacts.

  1. The Role of Hippo Waste in Ecosystem Dynamics: Hippos produce large quantities of waste rich in nutrients. In a natural environment, when rivers flow, this feces gets dispersed, providing essential nutrients to aquatic flora and fauna.
  2. Climate Change and Water Flow: As climate change leads to erratic rainfall patterns and prolonged droughts, the usual flow of rivers can be drastically reduced. This event diminishes the natural dispersion of the hippos’ nutrient-rich waste, leading to localized build-ups.
  3. Human Developments: The construction of dams, diversions for irrigation, and other infrastructural developments can further interrupt the natural flow of rivers. It affects the dispersion of hippo waste and disrupts the migratory patterns of other aquatic species.
  4. Nutrient Overload and Algal Blooms: In areas where hippo waste accumulates due to stagnant water, it can lead to eutrophication. In this process, water bodies receive an influx of nutrients, promoting excessive algae growth known as algal blooms. While algae are a natural part of aquatic ecosystems, an overabundance can lead to several ecological problems.
  5. Depletion of Oxygen: As these massive algal blooms die off, their decomposition by bacteria consumes large amounts of oxygen from the water. This results in hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions, which can be lethal for most aquatic species, including fish, crustaceans, and aquatic plants.
  6. Ripple Effect on the Food Web: The death of these aquatic species can disrupt the food chain. Predators that rely on these species for sustenance may starve, while scavengers might temporarily flourish. Over time, however, the overall health and diversity of the ecosystem can decline.
  7. Human Impacts: Beyond the direct interference in river flow, human activities such as pollution, habitat encroachment, and hunting can further jeopardize the hippo population, amplifying the aforementioned ecological consequences.

Geophagy: Do Hippos Eat Dirt?

Geophagy, observed in various animals worldwide, is the deliberate ingestion of dirt, mud, or small rocks. 

For hippos, the answer to this question is No! Hippos do not eat soil to integrate their diet. However, they roll in the mud and use it as a sunscreen.

Interaction with Other Animals: Symbiotic Relationships

Hippos simbiosis with birds

While the hippopotamus leads a largely solitary existence in terms of its dietary habits, it isn’t entirely isolated from the interconnected web of the animal kingdom. 

Hippos often engage in symbiotic relationships with other animals, particularly birds. While not directly related to the food hippos consume, these mutualistic interactions are crucial to their health and well-being.

One of the most iconic images of hippos is their lounging in the water, with birds perched atop their bodies. As they peck away, these birds consume ticks, dead skin, and other parasites that find refuge in the Hippo’s thick hide.

For the birds, the Hippo provides a moving feast and abundant nourishment. In return, the Hippo thoroughly cleans, relieving the irritation and potential diseases these parasites might cause.

Conclusions

The hippopotamus, an emblematic inhabitant of Africa’s freshwater lakes, rivers, and marshlands, exhibits specific dietary habits.

These animals predominantly graze on grass, consuming 30 to 40 kg daily to sustain their sizeable body. 

Although predominantly herbivores, hippos can occasionally be opportunistic, consuming animal carcasses or venturing into human-farmed lands in search of cultivated crops.

Human-induced changes to their habitat, whether through agriculture, climate change, or infrastructure development, can have cascading effects on the hippos and the entire ecosystem. 

Climate change, urban development, and agricultural expansion pose ever-growing threats, and understanding their diet and behavior is a critical step toward their conservation.

If you found this exploration into hippos’ dietary habits and ecological significance interesting, please consider sharing this article with your social network. 

We invite your thoughts, comments, and insights on this topic. Let’s engage in a conversation and spread awareness about the beautiful, complex world of hippos!

RenzoVet
RenzoVet

A Veterinarian who grew up in the countryside of a small Italian town and moved to live and work in the United Kingdom. I have spent most of my professional time trying to improve the quality of life of animals and the environmental and economic sustainability of farm enterprises.

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