Is It a Pig, a Hippo, or a Midget? Nope – It’s a Pygmy Hippo!

pygmy hippo

Overview

You’ve heard the saying, “only a mother could love a face like that,” right? That saying applies to the pygmy hippo. As cute as it is, it also contains an element of “ug.” And, of course, everyone thinks it looks like a tiny hippopotamus.

That is relatively true if you aren’t looking at them alongside each other. But place them next to each other, and you can see the differences.

pygmy hippo

All that aside, we take a good look at the pygmy hippo and what makes this “lil un” tick. We examine its diet and nocturnal shenanigans and ponder its blood sweat.

We go further and explore its conservation status – the serious, serious stuff. Then, we add some fun stuff for balance and weird FAQs about what people want to know. Enjoy the read!

Taxonomy and Origins

What are the Nigerian subspecies of this pygmy hippo, and where does the pygmy hippopotamus come from? What is its scientific classification, and are some subspecies extinct? Find out right here!

how big are pygmy hippos

Nigerian Subspecies

Nobody ever studied a sample of the Nigerian pygmy, which lived in the wild until the 20th century.

Because of a lack of samples, experts never got to prove its classification as a distinct subspecies other than being closely related to the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus subspecies with the trinominal nomenclature of Choeropsis liberiensis liberiensis.

But scientists classify the Nigerian subspecies as C. liberiensis heslopi due to its close genetic ties with the Liberian cousin from zoo specimens. The Nigerian pygmy roamed the swamplands of the Niger River Delta in the vicinity of Port Harcourt. It is thought to be extinct because no one has seen it since the 1940s.

dwarf hippo

Besides, this subspecies is far from West Africa, where its closest relatives inhabit the forest regions of that part of the continent. Another obstacle separates this pygmy hippopotamus from its relatives. This hurdle is the Dahomey Gap which is a savanna area.  

I.R.P. Heslop maintains that he shot and killed a pygmy hippo in the Niger Delta in 1945. He also maintained that he saw only about 30 of these mammals there at the time. So, the Nigerian pygmy takes its name from Heslop, who acquired several skulls as samples for further research.

G. B. Corbet studied them in 1969, only to learn that they did not match the same subspecies. Unfortunately, the records were so poor as to be of little use, leading to questions about the Nigerian subspecies today.

Evolution

Researchers first thought that the pygmy hippopotamus and the large hippo were relatives of pigs and hogs or peccaries. More recent studies show that their closest relations are dolphins and whales (cetaceans).

pygmy hippopotamus

This research makes sense when you think about how much these hippos (anthracotheres) love water. One lot remained water babies while the other adapted to living on land and in or close to water.

Over millions of years, these Hippopotamidae evolved, inhabiting Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe and Asia but not the Americas.

Although the science is sparse, the experts state that the common hippo belongs to the Hippopotamus genus and the Hippopotamus amphibius species today. The pygmy hippo belongs to the Choeropsis genus and the Choeropsis liberiensis species.

They share the Hippopotamidae family ancestry, and so the hippo is the hippo pygmy’s larger relative.  

Scientific Classification

black hippos
  • Kingdom – Animalia
  • Phylum – Chordata
  • Class – Mammalia
  • Order – Artiodactyla
  • Family – Hippopotamidae
  • Subfamily – Hippopotaminae
  • Genus – Choeropsis
  • Species – C. liberiensis

Extinct Pygmy and Dwarf Hippos

Although not pygmies, the following list of dwarf hippopotami have become extinct:

small hippo
  • Cretan dwarf hippopotamus (Hippopotamus creutzburgi)
  • Sicilian hippopotamus (Hippopotamus pentlandi)
  • Maltese hippopotamus (Hippopotamus melitensis)
  • Cyprus dwarf hippopotamus (Hippopotamus minor)

Scientists believe that these animals may have been the focus of insular dwarfism, which occurs when animals are isolated on islands.

Although dwarf hippos and not the pygmy hippopotamus choeropsis liberiensis, experts say that several species of pygmy hippos did occupy the island of Madagascar (hippopotamus madagascariensis).

Detailed Description

I learned a new word today – graviportal. It means a slow-moving creature on land because it weighs so much. Scientists describe pygmy hippos as having a graviportal skeleton, so you get the idea that they like life at a slow pace but can move fast if necessary.

miniature hippo

With that snippet out of the way – pygmy hippos have stout cylindrical shaped bodies. They’re round and chubby with short, stocky legs ending in four toes, which are part nail and part hoof that are slightly webbed.

Place an image of a pygmy hippopotamus and a common hippo together. You can see that the pygmy hippo’s head and neck are proportionally smaller than their larger cousin. You will also notice that their snout is rounder and smaller, with non-protruding nostrils. Pygmy hippo eye positions are more to the side of the head.

The pygmy hippo’s teeth include one pair of massive incisors, whereas the common hippo has two or three. The pygmy hippo’s teeth also are much the same as the common hippopotamus, consisting of canines and smaller incisors.

Their skin is greenish-black and a lighter gray beige on the underbelly. They have a thick inner dermis layer of about 0,4 inches under an outer thin skin with a horny layer.

The pygmy hippo’s skin produces hipposudoric acid, a sunscreen, moisturizer, and antiseptic. It gives their skin a pale pink sheen, which is why it is known as blood sweat.

While the pygmy hippopotamus displays primarily terrestrial behavior, they are also semi-aquatic and spend a lot of time in rivers or streams to keep their skin moist and keep their body temperature cool.

Behavior of Pygmy Hippos

Catch up on their eating and reproduction behavior below.

Diet and Nutrition

miniature hippo

Pygmy hippos are herbivores which means they eat vegetation for approximately six hours of the night. Preferring a more terrestrial life, they forage on the forest floor for ferns, roots, and leaves. Or they eat fallen fruit and herbs. These animals also feed on semi-aquatic plants but don’t eat much grass since there is so little where they live.

Its feeding times are mostly at dusk when it comes out of the water after staying cool during the day. Then it takes well-worn game paths through dense vegetation to get to its feeding grounds on the forest floor.

As it moves, it marks its trail by rapidly moving its tail from side to side. It defecates in the process, creating a widespread spray (charming – not).

Pygmy Hippo’s Reproduction

mini hippos

Because it is so shy and elusive, the pygmy hippo is a difficult animal to study. So, experts don’t know much about how they breed in the wild. Most of what they know comes from studying them in zoos.

They reach sexual maturity between three and five years. One female gave birth to a calf when she was just a little more than three years. A female pygmy hippo’s oestrus cycle lasts only about 35 days.

During this period, the oestrus cycle only occurs for one to two days. They are monogamous and mate in the water or on land up to four times during the oestrus timeframe.

The female’s gestation period lasts between 190 and 210 days, and they can give birth all year. Pygmy hippos can also give birth in the water because the calf can swim soon afterward. Pygmy hippos can have twins, but giving birth to one calf is more common.

The calves are weaned in eight months or less, with the mother suckling the calf up to three times daily. She nurses them while lying on her side. Until weaned, they hide in the water while the mother forages.  

Habitat and Ecology

They live in small populations in the hot, lowland rainforests of West Africa, where there are swamps and rivers. While extinct from the east coast of Nigeria, there are still small populations of pygmy hippos in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

pygmy hippo size comparison


They share some of their space with the Nile Hippopotamus, which also inhabits areas of West Africa, although they obviously avoid their large relatives for safety reasons.

When they spend time in rivers, these animals stay in one spot for days before moving locations. Biologists also believe that they hide in burrows along the river bank. But they are uncertain whether they take over the shelters of other animals or dig their own. 

History and Folklore

Because the pygmy hippo was unknown until its discovery in the 19th century, it hasn’t had much time to become part of folklore outside West Africa. Even in Africa, it seems to be little understood because it is a nocturnal creature, only coming out at night. Beyond the Liberians calling it a water cow, it is still mysterious.

pygmy hippo size comparison

The first pygmy hippo was transported to Europe from Sierra Leone in 1873. Unfortunately, it died. However, explorers transported skulls and live specimens to countries like Germany in 1911.

They also made their way to the U.S., where Harvey Firestone showed Billy the pygmy hippo to President Calvin Coolidge. Due to breeding programs by the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Billy is now the common ancestor of most pygmy hippos in the U.S.

One African tale does tell the story of the pygmy hippo carrying a diamond in its mouth to light its path when feeding at night. During the day, it hides this diamond in a safe place. A hunter can take its diamond if it catches the pygmy hippo at night.

Another story is that the young pygmy licks its mother’s skin secretions instead of nursing. 

Pygmy Hippopotamus Family Life

pygmy hippo weight

The pygmy hippopotamus enjoys a close-knit family life, choosing to live in small groups or alone. A mated pair will live together, or a mother and her young calf will create a family life.

Male pygmy hippos have a territorial range of about 460 acres, but the female pygmy hippo only moves around with a space of 100 to 150 acres. 

How Big Are Pygmy Hippos?

mini hippo

Pygmy hippos are about half the size of large hippopotamuses. They reach a height of between 2.50 and 3.30 feet at the shoulder. Their portly length is roughly 4,95 to 5,75 feet. The average weight of these pygmy hippos ranges from 400 to 600 pounds.  

Pygmy Hippo vs. Regular Hippo Size

To give you an idea of where the tiny hippo pygmy stands in relation to the common hippos, check out these numbers.

  • Hippo weight: the common hippopotamus is 2,900 to 3,300 pounds vs. the pygmy hippopotamus at 400 to 600 pounds
  • Hippo shoulder height: 4.3 to 5.4 feet vs. 2.50 and 3.30 feet
  • Hippo body length: 9.5 to 16.6 feet vs. 4,95 to 5,75 feet
  • Tail length: 11 to 14 inches vs. 6.3 inches

These figures show that pygmy hippos are five times smaller than the common hippopotamus. It is also much shorter at the shoulder and up to 4 feet shorter in body length. 

Pygmy Hippopotamus Lifespan

pigmy hippos

Some sources say its lifespan ranges between 30 and 55 years in captivity. Other sources maintain that the pygmy hippopotamus’s lifespan is 27 years, while another says it is 40 years. The lower figure of 27 years may refer to the lifespan in the wild.

Pygmy Hippopotamus Fun Facts

dwarf hippos
  • They can reach running speeds of 18.6 mph.
  • Pygmy hippos swim at five mph.
  • They can hold their breath for up to 5 minutes underwater.
  • Pygmy hippos can wallow in the same muddy, swampy spot for several days before moving to a new location.
  • The pygmy hippo has one stomach with four chambers.
  • Pygmy hippos can’t sweat. Instead, they produce a product from their skin known as blood sweat to regulate their body temperature to remain cool and protect themselves from the sun and other elements.
  • These mammals are solitary and prefer to be alone or with their immediate families.
  • If they meet strange pygmy hippopotamuses in the wild, they ignore them and go their own way.

Pygmy Hippopotamus as a Predator

pygmy hippo size

These animals are herbivores, so they don’t eat meat. Only carnivores are predators. But the pygmy hippo’s teeth are pretty daunting, and it isn’t afraid to use them to defend itself, so be wary of confronting them or threatening them. You might just get the bite of your life.

Population Threats

Pygmy hippos face threats from habitat loss due to deforestation, farm land, logging, and development. Because of declining regions to live in, their populations become fragmented, adversely influencing their genetic diversity.

pigmy hippo

Another threat to the pygmy hippopotamus is illegal hunting in Liberia for bush meat. Surprisingly, nobody hunts for pygmy hippo’s teeth because they have no value. But they do pursue the common hippopotamus for its teeth since they have monetary worth.

War and civil unrest also negatively impact the lives of these animals. Besides people, pygmy hippos are primarily threatened by the python, leopard, and crocodile

Pygmy Hippos Conservation Status

Of the two extant species of the hippopotamus genus, the pygmy hippo genus is an endangered species. Sources note that there are only about 2,000 to 2,500 living animals worldwide, most of which are in zoos.

Only 41% of pygmy hippos born in zoos since 1919 have been males, creating concern. Besides other areas, these animals are threatened in the Upper Guinea forest of West Africa.

pigme hippo

But, conservation efforts have been promising, with population numbers doubling from 1970 to 1991. Protected habitats like the Gola Forest Reserve in Sierra Leone are significant in helping the pygmy hippo to survive.

The ZSL’s EDGE of Existence Programme also focuses on conserving pygmy hippos in Liberia’s Sapo National Park and Sierra Leone Loma Mountains. Many other conservation efforts are ongoing globally, although mostly in zoos.

However, all initiatives provide support in ensuring the survival of the pygmy hippopotamus.

FAQ’s

Is a Hippo a Mammal?

The hippo is definitely a mammal that gives birth to a pygmy hippo calf and suckles them.

How Many Legs Are Hippopotamus Born With?

Hippos are all born with four legs unless there is some awful kind of genetic mutation. They also have four toes on each foot, which have hooflike nails.

Pygmy Hippo Weight.

They’re cute and chubby looking and weigh about 400 to 600 pounds – not so small after all!

Conclusion

It’s hard not to fall in love with the pygmy hippopotamus choeropsis liberiensis. This little animal is cute, and its shyness gives it even more appeal. The fact that it looks like its larger cousin adds to the attraction.

But we shouldn’t allow its appearance to distract us from the fact that it is endangered. People are the primary threat to the pygmy hippo, destroying its habitat at an unprecedented speed. People also hunt this largely defenseless creature, along with other predators.

Conservation efforts are ongoing to at least preserve the current pygmy hippo populations. However, they could do with a lot of help. Consider adopting one of these cuties today and make the difference you weren’t sure you could!

Janet F. Murray
My connection with animals has been close since my early years. Our family had two dogs, a cat, bunnies, and chickens. Livestock like horses and cows also surrounded our home. My siblings and I kept pets like hamsters, rats, and mice. My brothers saved wild animals at times. Now I have a beautiful rescue cat I lovingly call Bubushu. My favorite writing topics include my first love, animals, and Lyme disease. Besides a business degree and being a content curator for almost ten years, I have also written my memoir, My Sub-Lyme life. This work details my journey with tick bite infections similar to Lyme disease, which left me severely disabled. The vectors for this disease all have close relationships with animals. They include fleas and ticks, so it is little surprise that my passion for animals exposed me to these infections. My wish is that my memoir helps others overcome their challenges. I trust that my content will draw attention to the fact that we are here to protect animal rights and should stop exploiting these sentient creatures with which we share this planet.

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