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When hippos ‘fly’: Scientists discover that the giant creatures can become airborne

Hippos may be enormous, but they are able to leave the ground - temporarily at least
Hippos may be enormous, but they are able to leave the ground - temporarily at least Copyright Royal Veterinary College
Copyright Royal Veterinary College
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Despite their significant weight and size, scientists have found that hippos can actually leave the ground - for a limited time at least.


Is there anything more terrifying than a creature weighing 3,600 kilogrammes flying towards you through the air?

Perhaps not - and it is a reality. Well, sort of.

Scientists have discovered that hippopotamuses can become airborne for substantial periods of time - for far longer than others of similar sizes.

The new research by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has found that the mammals can stay in the air for up to 0.3 seconds at a time when moving at speed.

They’re the second heaviest animal on earth - after elephants - but, unlike those beasts, hippos exclusively trot when moving, meaning they are more able to get momentum going.

In this still from a video taken by RVC researchers, a heavy hippo briefly 'flies'
In this still from a video taken by RVC researchers, a heavy hippo briefly 'flies'Royal Veterinary College

But why did the scientists conduct the study? The researchers’ aim was to improve scientific understanding of how the size of large animals influences their movement on land.

There was also a wider focus on the importance of supporting the reconstruction of the evolutionary biomechanics of hippo lineages and helping veterinarians diagnose or monitor hippos who may have problems moving or be experiencing lameness.

The research comes at a crucial time for hippos across the globe.

Currently, of the two remaining species, the pygmy hippo - who inhabits the forests and wetlands of West Africa - is endangered while the common hippopotamus - found mainly in sub-Saharan grasslands - is listed as vulnerable.

How did scientists find out that hippos can become airborne?

As part of RVC’s research, experts monitored video footage taken of two hippos moving around their paddock at the Flamingo Land Resort in Yorkshire, northern England.

"We're thrilled to provide the first study purely focused on revealing how hippos walk and run," Professor John Hutchinson, lead author of the study, said, “We were pleasantly surprised to see how hippos get airborne when they move quickly - it's really impressive."

Interestingly, very little has previously been known about how hippos move, in part due to the fact that they tend to stick to water - and because of the significant danger they pose to humans.

The new research has opened a window into parts of the lives of hippos - and experts are hopeful it’s a step in the right direction.

"I am delighted that we could help facilitate and aid in the collection of this valuable data in this exceptional publication, Kieran Holliday, science and conservation officer at Flamingo Land Resort, said, "The fact that this paper has uncovered possible new discoveries into hippo locomotion could have positive impacts to the wider zoo community in regards to husbandry and enclosure design."

Hippos weigh up to 3,600kg, making them the heaviest land animal after the elephant.

Currently, there are between 115,000 and 300,000 hippos in the wild worldwide, mainly living in rivers and lakes throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

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