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Wild At Heart

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Young Hippos At Play

Updated: Feb 6, 2018

Michael Hutchins on March 20, 2017

On World Safaris’ January, 2017 expedition to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania our clients were treated to some fascinating animal behavior: two young hippos playing a variation of “king of the hill.”

Although highly gregarious, adult hippos can be very aggressive, even to other members of their group.  Often we see open mouth threats and other aggressive behaviors, sometimes culminating in brief, but intense actual combat.  Adults have long canine teeth, which can inflict painful bites and scratches.  The thick hides of adult hippos are often covered with scratches as a result.

Two adult hippos face off in open mouth threats while testing one another. Photo by M. Hutchins.

Play behavior among young hippos is seldom seen, but we were able to watch and photograph two young hippos engaging in play for over an hour at the Hippo Pool in Ngorongoro Crater. The interactions began with pushing and shoving and progressed into open mouth threats and exaggerated chasing and running away. Sometimes the two would assume a head to tail position and rest their heads on each others’ backs.  The pushing and shoving appeared to be a form of “king of the hill”, which is a common play behavior in many ungulate (hooved mammal) species.  This generally involves pushing and shoving, with the general goal of the stronger individual getting the weaker individual off the high ground.

In these two photos, the young hippos assume a head to tail position pushing and shoving, often opening their mouths in typical hippo threat behavior until the other yields or loses its position on the high ground. Photos by M. Hutchins.

The pushing, shoving, chasing and open mouth threats eventually ended with one of the pair rolling into the water and making a big splash, while the other watched.

These two photos show one of the young hippos rolling into the water, while the other watches. Photos by M. Hutchins.

The rolling hippo would eventually emerge from the water with the “victor” waiting to resume the contest, and the sequence would begin all over again.

This shows the roller emerging from the water with its “opponent” ready to resume the mock battle, with mouth open. Photos by M. Hutchins.

We humans tend to think of play as non-serious, inconsequential, “fun” behavior.  However, play behavior is very complex, serious business. When they play, young animals are learning how to interact and defend themselves from others, but because the participants are so young, they can engage in these behaviors with little risk of injury or death.  Of course, that does not mean that there are no risks; It just means that the risks are low and it is better to gain these skills when young rather than wait until one is an adult and the risks are great, possibly resulting in serious injury or even death.

This was a wonderful example of the behavior of free-ranging animals that we were able to see, experience and interpret on this trip. World Safaris cannot guarantee that you will see specific  animals or behaviors on our trips. However, we see our job as putting our clients in the best possible positions to have such experiences if and when they occur.  Please let World Safaris show you the natural wonders of East Africa and beyond.

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