I’m sure most, if not all of you have heard of hippopotamuses. What you may not know is that there are actually two species of hippopotami (both plurals are used, but hippopotami is more archaic, and much more fun to say): the common hippopotamus and the pigmy hippopotamus. Today I’m going to talk about the pigmy hippo, because smaller animals are more fun.

Pygmy hippopotami live in West Africa, in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. They are not found in places where common hippopotami live, and so do not compete with their larger cousins. Pigmy hippos reside in low elevation forests, avoiding any open areas. They must be near water, and so are usually found around swamps, streams or rivers.

A pygmy hippo at the Szeged Zoo. Image by Tommy from Arad, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pigmy hippos grow to be 1.5 to 1.75 meters long, with weights of up to 275 kg. While that doesn’t seem to fit the name ‘pigmy’, relative to common hippos, which can weigh almost 2,700 kg, pigmy hippopotami are quite tiny. They have brown or green-black skin, that fades to a light colour on the hippos’ undersides. Pigmy hippos have longer legs and necks relative to common hippos, and have less webbing on their feet. These adaptations are thought to facilitate movement on land rather than in water.

One of the problems that hippos have to deal with is dry skin. They cope with this in a couple of ways. First, all hippos spend a lot of time in water; this keeps their skin moist and protects it from the sun. Second, both species of hippos produce an interesting secretion, known as ‘blood sweat’. This reddish substance acts like sunscreen, and has the added benefit of making hippos’ skin look pinkish.

Pigmy hippopotami are not social creatures, living alone for most of their lives. They are shy, and are mostly active at night. They spend most of the day in the water, or in burrows that they likely do not dig themselves. They spend six hours a day foraging, eating mostly ferns, leafy plants and fruits. Pigmy hippos do have a multi-chambered stomach, though they are not true ruminants and do not ferment food the same way cows do.

In captivity pigmy hippos are monogamous, but this may not be the case in the wild. Image By © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Because pigmy hippos live in forests and are nocturnal, observing them in the wild is quite a challenge. Luckily, they breed well in captivity, and so we have been able to learn a lot about the species based on its captive behaviour (though this behaviour might be different from what the animals do in the wild). Breeding occurs at any time of the year, and gestation lasts between 190 and 210 days. Young are able to swim almost immediately after birth, and stay in water while their mother goes on land to find food. They are weaned at six to eight months of age.

Pigmy hippos are currently considered endangered, as the forests they live in are subject to extensive logging. These hippos are also considered to be quite tasty, and are illegally hunted in Liberia. Hopefully through captive breeding and better protection we can protect these (somewhat) small creatures.

Cover image by Chuckupd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons