Hippos are herbivores, meaning they only eat plant materials. Their diet consists mainly of grasses, herbs and fruits that grow near the water’s edge.
A hippo may consume up to 150 pounds of vegetation in a single night! That’s approximately 1-1.5% of their body weight each day.
Here are some of their favorite food items:
- Grasses – protein-rich grazing grasses like Bermuda grass and Paspalum grass are hippo staples.
- Herbs – hippos enjoy clover, cresses and sedges for their tender leaves and shoots.
- Fruits – juicy fruits like watermelons, pawpaws and mangos provide hydration and nutrients.
- Agricultural crops – hippos can’t resist raiding cornfields, sugar cane plantations and citrus groves. This leads to frequent conflicts with local farmers.
Their wide mouth and lips are perfectly designed for plucking greens and fruit. The canine teeth are used for combat, not chewing. Food is ground up by the large flat rear molars. Their teeth are continuously growing to counteract the abrasion from grit swallowed during grazing.
How Do Hippos Eat? Nighttime Feeding
Hippos do most of their eating at night when they leave the water to forage. This nocturnal lifestyle helps them avoid the heat of the day in tropical climates. It also limits encounters with predators like lions, crocodiles and humans.
Grazing usually takes place within 2-3 miles of their daytime water refuge. But hippos have been known to travel 6 or 7 miles into grasslands, gardens and farms in search of food.
The enormous hippo appetite means they can quickly devour all the vegetation around their daytime pools. So sounders (the collective noun for hippos) will rotate between several feeding sites to prevent habitat destruction.
During the wet season when water is abundant, a hippo spends about 5 hours per 24-hour cycle eating and grazing. In the dry season with limited food, they may increase feeding to up to 8 hours.
When Do Hippos Eat? Dry Season Adaptations
The dry season brings new challenges for hippos to meet their nutritional needs:
- Reduced grazing lands as floodplains dry up
- Drought conditions stunt plant growth
- Loss of fruiting shrubs and trees
- Increased malnutrition and disease
To cope, hippos make the most of the plants still sprouting along rivers and deltas. They’ll also widen their palate to browse on lower quality fibrous plants that were previously avoided.
The most dominant males occupy territories with the best remaining grazing. Nursing mothers and calves may struggle, sometimes resulting in increased baby hippo mortality.
Where Do Hippos Eat? Habitat and Feeding Ranges
Hippos are found near waterways throughout sub-Saharan Africa from the Sahara to South Africa. But habitat loss is encroaching on their historic ranges.
Ideal hippo habitat provides:
- Permanent freshwater lakes, rivers, marshes or pools
- Emergent vegetation like grasses, sedges and reeds
- Grasslands within a few miles for nighttime grazing
- Low human disturbance and reduced land conversion
What Do Hippos Eat in Zoos? Caring for Captive Hippos
Today over 1,500 hippos live in zoos and wildlife parks around the world. Caring for these imposing animals in human care comes with challenges.
Hippos can eat up to 150 pounds of food every day! Zookeepers work diligently to provide a varied diet that mimics their wild grazing habits.
Here are some techniques used to feed hippos in captivity:
- Scattering hay or grass around their enclosures stimulates natural foraging.
- Chopped produce like carrots and yams adds variety.
- Hiding foods in barrels or puzzle toys encourages natural browsing behaviors.
- Access to private ponds allows grazing on freshwater plants.
- Food pellets supplement nutrients.
Providing enriching meals prevents boredom and promotes good health. But obesity can be an issue if overfed. Hippos will hole up in their pools if temperatures exceed 85°F making exercise difficult.
They count on keepers to provide food but can get impatient when hungry! Aggressive behaviors like charging, jaw clapping and biting are reminders it’s time to eat.
Overall a balanced, seasonal diet tailored to each hippo helps facilities mimic wild nutrition as close as possible.
Hippo Diet FAQs
Here are answers to some common questions about hippos and what they eat:
Are hippos carnivores or herbivores?
Hippos are herbivores. They only eat plant material such as grass, plants, fruits and vegetables. Their wide mouths and large molars are designed for chewing and grinding vegetation.
Do hippos eat meat?
No. Hippos do not eat any meat. Very rarely they have been observed scavenging carcasses or eating small aquatic creatures (like baby turtles) but their bodies are not adapted to digest meat.
What do baby hippos eat?
Baby hippos or calves rely entirely on their mother’s milk for the first 8 months of life. Around 6-8 weeks they will start sampling and nibbling on vegetation but not fully digest it. By 8 months they are ready for complete weaning off mother’s milk and transition to the full adult diet of grass and herbs.
How much do hippos eat per day?
An adult hippo eats 110-165 pounds of vegetation per day equaling about 1-1.5% of its body weight. This makes them among the largest consumers of vegetation in African ecosystems.
How do hippos swallow food underwater?
Hippos have a tactile disk valve seal in their throat that prevents water from entering their lungs when they open their mouth underwater. They can suck food from the bottom without water flooding their lungs. The same valve seals shut when they surface to breathe.
What effect do hippos have on their habitat?
Due to their huge appetites, hippos have a large impact on their ecosystems. Their grazing helps fertilize the habitat but they can destroy plant life if overcrowded. Their dung also fertilizes aquatic plants and redistributes nutrients over the landscape.
Do hippos have predators?
Very young, old and injured hippos may fall prey to crocodiles, lions and hyenas. But healthy adults have few predators due to their massive size and aggressive nature. Loss of habitat and hunting by humans are the biggest threats.
I hope this overview has shed light on the fascinating feeding ecology and dietary adaptations of the charismatic hippopotamus! Let me know if you have any other hippo diet questions.