In many members of the animal kingdom, parental care of young lies solely on the mother. In the case of the hippopotamus, both of his parents take up their dedicated roles to nurture and protect their baby for most of his first year of life. Being the only offspring, a baby hippopotamus is the center of their devotion.
Before the Birth
Although a hippopotamus can breed at any time during the year, most breeding occurs during Africa’s dry season between the months of February and August. The gestation period for a hippopotamus lasts 324 days, resulting in the birth of one single baby hippopotamus, or calf, during the rainy season between October and April. As the due date draws near, a pregnant hippopotamus becomes very protective of her unborn offspring. She becomes highly aggressive when any animal threatens to come into contact with her. She'll isolate herself in the birthing area of her choice prior to the big day.
Baby’s First Days
The hippopotamus is adapted to giving birth either on land or in shallow water. After she has chosen her preferred location, the mother gives birth to one calf. A newborn hippopotamus can weigh between 50 and 110 pounds. Adults can hold their breath for five minutes when submerged, but if the mother gives birth to her young under water, she has only about 40 seconds to bring him up to the surface for his first breath. Once the calf is born, the mother remains isolated from the herd, remaining with her baby for several days to two weeks. During this time, she nurses the calf, bonds with him and forgoes her own grazing until she is confident that he can safely accompany her back to the herd.
Bringing Up Baby
Approximately 14 days after birth, mother rejoins the herd with her calf. She will nurse her calf for at least 8 months. He is able to suckle even underwater, as his nostrils close and ears fold. Since the female mates only once every other year, she has plenty of time to devote to her calf. As the only calf to bask in his mother’s attention, the bond between them is strong, evidenced by displays of affection, mutual grooming, nuzzling and cuddling together. The male also plays a role in caring for the calf, acting as fierce protector against such potential predators as hyenas, lions and crocodiles. The close family unit of the hippopotamus incites the male to attack and defend any encroaching threat. The male primarily occupies the perimeter banks of the herd’s territorial waters to keep a watchful eye out for these offenders, while the female provides protection from within the pool itself.
He’s All Grown Up
The calf will remain with his mother for several years, interacting with as many as four subsequently born siblings. The hippopotamus reaches sexual maturity at 42 months. Around age 7, the young male will follow other males and begin to assert his independence and compete for dominance. Displays of fighting behavior ensue; the most dominant male will ultimately inherit the elevated status and the territorial quests. A full-grown, female hippopotamus averages 3,000 pounds in weight; her male counterpart may weigh as little as 3,500 pounds but as much as 9,920 pounds. Taking the life lessons imparted by his parents, the hippopotamus puts his survival skills into use for a life of about 36 years.
- Anup Shah/Digital Vision/Getty Images