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photo: Nitzan Ben nun Nahum
photo: Jerusalem Biblical Zoo archive
Hippos are amphibious animals, meaning that they live in the water and on land, but they prefer the water, and are adapted to aquatic life. A hippo’s ears, eyes and nostrils are all located on the top of its head, so that the hippo can be completely submerged in water, keeping only its ears, eyes and nostrils above the surface so that it can hear, see, and smell what is going on outside. All of the important events in a hippo’s life – such as mating, calving and nursing hippo calves – occur underwater.
But why does the hippo need to spend all of its time underwater anyway? After all, an adult hippo, whose weight can surpass three tons, has no natural predators. The answer is that the hippo stays underwater to keep away from the sun! The hippopotamus has sensitive skin, like a baby’s skin, which dries out and burns easily. In addition to hiding underwater, the hippo also creates its own sunscreen to protect its sensitive skin. Its skin is covered with tiny pores through which it secretes a greasy liquid that lubricates its skin and protects it from the sun. The liquid is reddish-pink, a fact that led early observers to conclude that the hippo sweats blood.
Hippo crashes (groups) are very territorial, and will zealously defend their territory. An outsider hippo, other large animals, or irresponsible hikers that enter the crash’s territory or startle its members, may be attacked. This zealousness has earned the hippo the title of the most dangerous animal in Africa. Its weight, and its canine teeth, which it uses mainly to fight and to defend itself, make it very lethal. To prevent outsiders from entering their territory, members of the crash mark out the territory with scent, using their faeces. They spread their faeces both in the water and on prominent areas of dry ground by moving their tails. Since the hippo doesn’t digest its food very well – like a number of other plant-eaters – its faeces attracts small animals (like fish, insects and birds) that come to feast on whatever is left of the hippo’s meals. These small animals, in turn, attract larger animals, and in some areas, the food chain is based on hippo faeces.
Another interesting hippo fact is who their relatives are. Their closest relatives are none other than whales and dolphins!
Tami is a female hippo who lives at the Zoo and spends most of her time in the African Savannah’s pond. If you look closely, you’ll spot her. Tami was born in 1959, so she’s 56 years old, and this makes her the oldest hippo in any European zoo. At one point, Tami shared the hippo pool (which is today’s Koi Pool at the Wet Side Story exhibit) with Mati, another hippo who came here from the old Biblical Zoo. Mati died a few years ago after swallowing a ball that is assumed to have been dropped in the pool by a visitor.
Scientific Name: Hippopotamus amphibius
Global Conservation Status: vulnerable (VU)
In Israel: extinct
At the Zoo: One female – Tami, an elderly individual in the African Savannah
In the Bible: It is generally associated with the “behemoth” described in the Bible. "…And the teeth of beasts will I send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust." Deuteronomy 32: 34
Hippos are apparently the “behemoths” mentioned in the book of Job. Today, hippos can only be found in Africa, but during Biblical times, hippos lived in Israel, mostly along the Mediterranean coast and in the rivers that flowed into the Mediterranean.
Habitat and Distribution: In the past, hippopotamus were found throughout Africa, and reached the Nile delta and Israel. Today, they can only be found in sub-Saharan areas, in the freshwater habitats of central and southern Africa.
Body Structure: Body height – 150-165 cm. Body length – males can reach 300-505 cm, while females can reach 290-430 cm. Weight – males can weigh between 1800 and 3500 kilograms, and females are smaller.
Diet: Herbivore. Tami at the zoo eats about 50 kilograms of food a day. Various types of straw make up the bulk of its diet. Its “dessert” consists of fruits and vegetables. In the wild, the hippopotamus feeds on grass, tubers, fruits and vegetables.
Social Structure: Groups called “crashes”
Activity cycle: Nocturnal
Threats in the wild: Hunting because of the destruction of agricultural land, habitat destruction.