High-speed video shows hippos taking off while racing

Examples of footfall patterns and definitions of footfall and footfall for data analysis of hippo locomotion. Images taken from an internet video and cropped at: Source: Victoria Wallace, Director, Zikomosafari

Two specialists in evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London have discovered that hippos regularly have all four feet in the air when they run quickly.

In her article published in the journal Peter JJohn Hutchinson and Emily Pringle describe how they filmed hippos at full speed using high-speed cameras and what they found when they analyzed the results.

The hippopotamus is considered one of the most dangerous animals in the world to humans. It is known to attack when provoked and to pursue if necessary. It is also very large: males weigh an average of 1,500 kg and females 1,300 kg. They can also run surprisingly fast for such a large animal – some animals have been recorded at speeds of up to 30 km/h.

In this new study, Hutchinson and Pringle wondered how such a heavy animal could reach such speeds. They noted that little research has been done on hippos' gaits because they are very dangerous to be around.

To find out, they went to the Flamingo Land Resort in North Yorkshire and used high-speed cameras to remotely study the hippos' running gait. They managed to capture 169 running cycles from 32 individual hippos on video.

When analyzing the video, researchers found that hippos tended to move at high speeds only when they were being chased by another hippo, which is usually a sign of dominance.

They also found that when running at top speed, they lifted all four feet off the ground at certain points in their gait – this happens 15% of the time when running. Each action took about 0.3 seconds. Further studies showed that the hippos ran at a trot rather than a gallop, as rhinos do.

The research couple also discovered that hippos have a similar running habit in the water: they cannot swim from place to place, but trot across the ground at high speed.

More information:
John R. Hutchinson et al, Stepping patterns and stride parameters of the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) on land, PeerJ (2024). DOI: 10.7717/peerj.17675

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