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Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The River Horse

The hippopotamus – the Greek word for river horse – was given its name because of the appearance of its head above water. The eyes, ears, and nostrils of hippos are located high on the roof of the skull. When attentively watching a trespasser, its odd little eyes filled with inquisitiveness, small, thick ears twitching back and forth, nostrils flaring, the animal does in fact bear some similarity to a horse. But the rest of the creature is pure obese, bulky and clumsy on land. However, they are capable of running faster than a human. It is estimated that their running speed varies from 30 km/h to 40 km/h, or even 50 km/h. The hippo can keep up these higher speeds for only a few hundred meters.

These creatures are capable of moving underwater with surprising ease, rising and descending at will by controlling the air in its stomach and bouncing along the beds of lakes and rivers. Adult hippos resurface to breathe every 3 to 5 minutes. The young have to breathe every two to three minutes. Although hippos are highly distributed all over Africa, there are only two species: the large common variety; and a pigmy species, found only in West Africa, which is not much bigger than a pig.

Hippos are known to be one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and are often regarded as the most ferocious animal in Africa; a hippo surprised on land will trample or bite anything between it and the water. Hippos spend most of their days dozing in the water or mud with only the top of its head exposed. At the least disturbance it will sink down to the bed of the river or pool, remaining submerged for a few minutes before rising to the surface for a rapid gulp of air. The water or mud serves to keep their body temperature down, and to keep their skin from drying out.

Hippos leave the water at night and travel inland, to graze on short grass which is their main source of food, and other vegetation on the banks. 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 - they divert the paths of swamps and channels which would otherwise become blocked by vegetation. In the rivers where hippos have been exterminated, masses of dead vegetation obstruct the water flow, sometimes chocking it off entirely.

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