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Hip-hippo-hooray for a big birthday girl and a celebration of African wildlife!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Guests enjoy a keeper talk while watching the hippos at the east edge of the African Savanna. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
A horse is a horse, of course of course, but a hippo is … well, let’s start with the fact that it’s larger than a horse. Technically the word “hippopotamus” comes from ancient Greek words meaning “horse of the river” but while both animals are four-legged mammals the similarities seemingly end there.

A hippo's body is perfectly adapted to life in the water, with eyes, ears and nostrils at the top of their heads. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
The common hippo (as opposed to the pygmy hippo) is native to sub-Saharan Africa where they spend hot days submerged in rivers, lakes and mangrove swamps. Their bodies are perfectly adapted to life in the water, with the location of their eyes, ears and nostrils at the top of their heads. This allows a hippo to see, hear, breathe and smell above the water while keeping the rest of its bulky body submerged. After sundown, these large herbivores come out of the water to graze and forage in the grasslands that surround their watery homes. Next to elephants and white rhinos, the hippopotamus is the third largest living land mammal. The average adult male hippo can weigh between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds—but an older dominant male can even get up to 7,000 pounds! That’s a lot of hippo!

Our keepers describe birthday girl Water Lily (a.k.a. Lily) as sweet, laid back, and gentle. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Lily! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo 

Woodland Park Zoo is currently home to two female hippopotamuses. (Yes, the plural of hippopotamus is hippopotamuses and not the sometimes misused hippopotami.) Water Lily and Guadalupe—also known as Lily and Lupe—live on the east side of the African Savanna area at the zoo, right across from the Giraffe Barn. At last check, our lovely Lily tipped the scales at 2,855 pounds and Lupe slightly more at 2,934 pounds. In the wild, hippos have been known to live up to 40 years, while those in human care can live even longer. Just ask birthday girl Lily. She’ll be 41 years old on Friday, August 30, while Lupe—finishing out her “teen” years right now—will turn 20 in November. Happy birthday, Lily!

We love our sassy girl! Lupe is known to be boisterous, rambunctious, impatient and sassy! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

While they spend much of their time in the water wild hippos spend mealtimes on dry land—usually after dark as they are nocturnal noshers. They can travel miles from the water in search of grasses, small green shoots and reeds. Wild hippos can graze for several hours every night, pulling up and tearing grass with their muscular lips, and then grinding it up with the big flat molars at the back of their mouth. While they don’t typically migrate, hippos can travel dozens of miles on land when needed—in search of a new river or lake if their territory has been threatened or at times of drought when their usual waterhole dries up.

Melons are a favorite hippo treat! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Lily and Lupe’s diet is similar to their wild counterparts in that they love their greens. Each of them feast on custom amounts of grass hay and a specialized high-fiber herbivore feed, along with a rotating assortment of tasty romaine, cabbage, celery, cucumber, carrots broccoli, and more. Their favorite treats? The occasional melon and various kinds of squash—including pumpkins on the weekend before Halloween. Their keepers tell us they also enjoy an occasional log specially chosen to toss into their pool—they roll it and chew off the bark like corn on the cob. Nom, nom, nom!

In the wild, hippos tend to huddle in the water in large groups comprised mostly of females, called cows, and younger offspring, known as calves. They are usually protected by a large dominant male, called a bull. As a species, they have a reputation for being quite dangerous—and for good reason. Hippos are territorial, protective, and surprisingly fast! They will not hesitate to show aggression toward anyone (human or animal) who they deem to be a threat. Males will fight, sometimes injuring each other with those long curved teeth, for dominance over territory and access to females. Females will fiercely defend their offspring and their territory from predators or rivals. The greatest threat to all of them, though, is habitat loss and poaching for their teeth or for bushmeat.

Sometimes the hippos enjoy munching the bark off a log like corn on the cob! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Like their wild counterparts, Lily and Lupe seem to enjoy spending time together. Whether in the pool or catching some rays outside the water’s edge, wherever you spot one, you’ll likely find the other close by. And with no one challenging their territory, access to food or safety, there is no need for the kind of aggression seen in their wild cousins. 

Both our hippo girls are smart, social, and have developed a very trusting relationship with the dedicated keepers who care for them. Both take part in voluntary training sessions for behaviors that help our staff monitor their health, like to stepping on a scale or into a chute, presenting the sides of their bodies for an exam, or opening their mouths so we can make sure those teeth are healthy. Despite these similarities, their personalities are different as can be. Our keepers describe Lily as the more calm, sweet, laid-back and gentle one—while Lupe tends to be more boisterous, rambunctious, impatient and sassy! This is the reasons why they’re usually separated at mealtime—one of the few times they’re not together. You see, laid-back Lily is a slow eater and when the two used to dine together, impatient Lupe would finish her own greens, then start grazing on Lily’s.

Come see Lily, Lupe and others that share their habitat on Summer Safari: African Wildlife Conservation Day, September 7, 10am - 3pm. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Celebrate Summer Safari: African Wildlife Conservation Day—Saturday, September 7, 2019

Other than these mealtime differences, both of our hippos get along rather swimmingly! And both would love to see you in person next time you come to the zoo! Join us on Saturday, September 7th to learn more about hippos and other species that share their habitat at Summer Safari: African Wildlife Conservation Day. There’s a full schedule of special activities celebrating Africa's breathtaking wildlife from 10:00a.m. ̶ 3:00p.m. The day will include keeper talks, games, a live African music performance and more. We hope to see you there!