By Traci Watson
Quick, huge and deadly, the common hippo is the king of Africa’s rivers. Now fossils suggest that hippos assumed power swiftly and that changes in vegetation helped to propel their rise.
An analysis of hippo teeth excavated at an Ethiopian fossil site suggests that the hippo went from bit player to boss of the waterways in less than 1.5 million years1. Earlier research had established that hippos exploded in abundance and diversity at some point in their history, but how long this ‘hippopotamine event’ took and when it happened was unknown2, 3.
The latest study concludes that the event began around 8 million years ago, as new grass types spread through Africa. This timing supports the theory that the hippo’s ascent is linked in part to the spread of these grasses. Today’s common hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) lolls in the water during the day, emerging at night onto land to tuck into nearby greenery, especially grasses.
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