Do Hippos Eat Meat?

As the third largest mammal on Earth, hippos are only bested in size by elephants and rhinoceroses. They spend most of their time either immersed in water or grazing for food. But what kind of food do they eat? Do they stick to grass or mix it up with meat?

The hippos’ natural diet consists mainly of grasses, shoots, and occasionally fruits in the wild and captivity. However, they have been known to eat meat (even corpses) during shortages. Their digestive systems are not built to process a carnivorous diet, so they typically only consume plants.

In this article, we will go over what hippos typically eat. And when they may take a nibble on some meat.

Pygmy Hippopotamus eating an apple

What Do Hippos Eat In The Wild?

Hippos are classified as herbivores. They graze on short grasses for about six hours daily and are most active at night. An adult hippo can consume up to 80 pounds of grass per day. 

Hippos in the wild also eat other plants, not just grass. Most of the time, hippos eat:

  • Short grass, we call a hippos lawn.
  • Wild fruits but makes only a negligible part of their daily ration
  • They may eat insects or water-born plants in the absence or shortage of their regular diet.

Hippos are generally more inactive unless they are out for food, which helps preserve their energy

However, when they are active, their ears hardly miss a beat--they can even detect the sound of falling fruit.

Furthermore, their keen sense of smell allows them to sniff out delicious snacks in the wild.

Pygmy hippos are vegetarians, but their diet is slightly different in that they eat mostly leaves from young trees, stems, tender roots, vegetables, and fallen fruits instead of grass.

They can also eat sweet potato leaves, okra, pepper plants, and tender shoots of rice plants.

What Do Hippos Eat In Captivity?

A captive hippo’s diet is different from that of a wild one. In zoos, they have access to a range of foods selected by nutritionists and staff. At the San Diego Zoo, for example, their diet includes:

  • Herbivore pellets
  • Bermuda hay
  • Alfalfa hay
  • Lettuce and mixed vegetables
  • Melons on special occasions

Interestingly, hippos consume melons while captive but do not eat them in the wild. Mainly due to a lack of wild watermelons in the wild, rather than preference.

Baby Hippo Fiona and Parents Get Watermelon Treat - Cincinnati Zoo

How Do Hippos Eat?

Hippos have a very particular way of eating. They will leave the water at night and follow the same path (hippo path) every day to get to areas where they can graze, known as hippo lawns

Here, they will spend around 6 hours each day (or, I should say, night) consuming grass.

Hippos have incisors and canines that they use for defense and offense. However, they usually don’t play a significant role in the prehension of food, except when the hippo is consuming meat.

They pull grasses and shoots of plants with their muscular lips and soften them in their oral cavity without chewing.

Hippos generally avoid coarse grass and thick roots; they never eat dirt or uncover any hidden roots.

Once done feeding, hippopotamuses return to water again before dawn. Unlike ruminants like cattle, they do not regurgitate or chew the cud.

Why Do Hippos Eat So Little?

Although they are pretty hefty, their diet only consists of 1-1.5 percent of their body weight.

Compared to the largest ruminants, which can eat 2.5-4 percent of their body weight daily, that isn’t much.

Maybe the long digestive system of hippos is sufficient to ensure adequate nutrient absorption, and there’s no need to worry about low intake levels.

Pygmy Hippopotamus eating grass and carrots

Do Hippos Eat Meat?

On occasion, hippos eat meat; it’s not their favorite food, though. 

In a 1998 paper, Joseph Dudley reported two hippos killing and eating an impala, proving that they can eat flesh when needed. There are a lot more recent reports indicating they can eat meat when needed.

Non-vegetarianism isn’t their primary source of nutrients, nor are they adapted to a strictly carnivorous lifestyle, so what drives these herbivore giants to eat meat?

Why Do Hippos Eat Meat?

Hippos are not predatory animals that hunt for food. There may be several reasons why they eat flesh, including:

  • Nutritional stress as a result of drought
  • Behavioral Deformities

Interestingly, hippos have been known to consume animal carcasses in areas with frequent rainfall.

How Frequently Do Hippos Eat Meat?

There is no sure answer to this question. But, as research suggests, hippos have a history of cannibalism.

It has been reported in several areas and incidents where hippos are found eating meat, even dead hippo meat.

However, we can assume it is sporadic and only occurs when hippos are deprived of their natural diet due to unforeseen circumstances.

The more often these conditions arise, the greater the likelihood that hippos will resort to cannibalism.

What Kind of Meat Do Hippos Eat?

Regarding their favorite food, hippos are picky eaters: they love grass and shoots but avoid coarse grass

However, when it comes to meat, they will consume any flesh, whether it is impalas, baby elephants, buffaloes, or the corpses of other hippos killed by them or predators.

Could Hippos Only Eat Meat?

Hippos have complex stomachs with three chambers. It is similar to other ruminants that have four-chambered stomachs. 

Therefore, we can see that the digestive system is not fully adapted to relying on meat as the only food source.

So occasional meat snacks would not harm a hippo, but if it shifts entirely to a meat diet, it would have fatal consequences. Hippos will not have enough of the proper nutrients, their organs will fail, and they may die.

Final Thoughts Hippos Eating Meat

By nature, hippos are herbivores that consume grasses and plants. However, they’ve been known to eat meat under nutritional stress or when abnormal behavior is exhibited. 

Recent evidence suggests that cannibalism might be present even in areas of heavy rainfall where their food supply is otherwise abundant.

The causes for this are still unclear, but it is clearly abnormal behavior from one of Africa’s largest vegetarians.

Hippopotamus eating

FAQs

Has a Hippo Ever Eaten a Human?

Hippos are not cannibals and will not eat humans. However, they are highly territorial and will attack if they feel threatened. Their massive size and powerful jaws make them dangerous animals, and they have been known to kill people who get too close to their incredible jaws.

Do Any Animals Eat Hippos?

Hippos share water with many large predators in their natural habitat. These animals include Nile crocodiles, lions, and spotted hyenas, who mainly go after young hippos. However, because adult hippos are so aggressive and big, they’re not typically hunted by predators. They are pretty much invincible when it comes to territory defense.

What Animals Do Hippos Eat?

Hippos are known to be more omnivorous than previously thought, as they occasionally feed on animal carcasses. Besides, hippos have been known to occasionally attack and eat other animals like wildebeests, zebras and kudus, impalas, baby elephants, and buffaloes. In some cases of extreme hunger or desperation, cannibalism has even occurred between Hippos.