Five things you need to know about hippos

by ZSL on

Hip hip-po ray, it's World Hippo Day! To celebrate, here's five things you need to know about hippos. Look out for our fabulous three when you next visit! 

Common hippos Hodor and mum Lola in the sunshine at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

There are two species: common hippos and pygmy hippos

And at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, we're home to both! 

Standing at just 1m tall, the pygmy hippo is significantly shorter than its larger cousin the common hippo, and is much lighter, at less than 20% of the weight. In the wild, pygmy hippos are found in West Africa and tend to live solitary lives in forests and swamps. They are known to be shy, often only coming out at night.

Common hippos, on the other hand, live in groups in rivers and lakes throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They spend up to 18 hours a day in water to keep their body temperature constant and to support their huge frame. 

Fun fact: The word Hippopotamus comes from the ancient Greek - 'hippo' meaning horse and 'potamo' meaning river. 


They make their own sunscreen 

Hippos have very sensitive skin which easily becomes dry and cracked. They produce a pigment that acts as a natural sunscreen - a fluid oozes from glands under the skin which helps keep the skin moist and stops sunburn. 

Hoover the hippo enjoys his cabbages at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

They have huge mouths

Hippos have enormous mouths which can be opened unbelievably wide, revealing their strong lower teeth. 

A hippo's jaw is capable of opening up to 150 degrees compared to a human jaw which can open about 50 degrees. Adult hippos have razor-sharp tusks in the lower jaw. In the common hippo these teeth can grow as long as 50cm and weigh over 1kg! 

Fun fact: Hippos are noisy feeders! A pygmy hippo can sometimes be heard eating from up to 50m away. 

Lola the hippo at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo with her mouth open

Common hippos have aquatic footwear 

The common hippo and the pygmy hippo are related, but they have adapted to different habitats. And one of these adaptions is in the feet. The common hippo spends over half its life in the water. The toes on each foot are slightly webbed to aid swimming, and the feet are large and flat, acting as paddles underwater. 

The pygmy hippo is less aquatic and spends more time on land, taking cover in the dense tropical forest during part of the day. The toes are long and spread out so are more adapted to walking on the land. 

Pygmy hippo Tapon out in the paddock in the sunshine at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Pygmy hippos are living on the EDGE

Pygmy hippos are recognised on ZSL's EDGE list of unique and threatened animals, which helps us focus our conservation efforts where they are most needed. They're Endangered, found only in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. Sadly, it's estimated that there are only 2-3000 left in the wild, due to threats such as logging and poaching. ZSL has worked to conserve these enigmatic yet highly elusive animals in Liberia's Sapo National Park and the Loma Mountains in Sierra Leone. 

Who do we have at the Zoo? 


Sometimes visitors think that he's a baby hippo, but he's not - Tapon is a fully grown adult male pygmy hippo. He might be small, but has a BIG personality and can be very stubborn.

The 16-year-old is a cheeky chap who loves a back stratch, but isn’t a fan of mornings. He likes to do everything in his own time - or as his keepers say, 'Tapon time'. Some of his favourite foods include bamboo leaves, willow, lettuce and carrots, but he's not too keen on parsnips - he's been known to turn his nose up at them! 


Lola was born on 27 December 2003 at Whipsnade Zoo, and is an affectionate and doting common hippo. She enjoys her food and loves drinking from the hose - at cleaning times, she stands with her mouth wide open, waiting for keepers to spray her! She weighs around 1,390kg - that's nearly the same as nine reindeer! Greedy little Hodor, her calf, is always after her food but she’s much bigger and faster so manages to beat him to it – for now!


Named after the loveable giant from 'Game of Thrones', Hodor is our youngest hippo, born on 21 July 2017. At around half of mum Lola's size (which is still almost as heavy as two polar bears), he’s still got a lot of growing to do if he’s going to catch up to dad Hoover. Just like his dad, he enjoys a good tickle under the chin.

Look out for our hippos at Whipsnade when you next visit!

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