I had joined my guests on the Varty Camp deck for tea to discuss what they were most interested in seeing that afternoon. One of them mentioned that we had not seen too many hippos yet and seemed very interested in going to see if there was any activity at any of the waterholes around the reserve.

I was happy with the request as I personally enjoy watching the different behaviours of hippo when they are not resting. We decided to pass a few prominent water points to see if we could find a pod of hippos doing something a little more exciting than simply wallowing, which is what they do most of the day. Hippos spend most of the day submerged in water, digesting the food they have eaten the previous night, so finding the creatures themselves wouldn’t be too hard, but finding them doing something more active could be a little more challenging.
Luck was with us that afternoon as we were about to watch was something none of us had seen before.

While approaching the first waterhole on our route we heard something thrashing around in the water. We could not see the waterhole yet which let our minds wonder as to what it could be. I turned around and could see the grin on my guests face as this could possibly be exactly what we had set out to find. As we came over the ridge the first thing we saw was a hippo thrashing its head around in the water. My guests could not stop grinning. The first thing they asked was why the hippo was thrashing its head around, which could have been a few different things but often it is a dominance/threat display when a hippo opens its mouth yawning, water-scooping and head shaking. I had seen this behavior with hippo many times. This time it was different.

As we got to the water whole we watched the hippo thrashing its head in the water which we initially thought was two males play fighting with one another as there is very little sexual dimorphism between male and female hippo.

The dominance display of yawning and water-scooping. Male hippos will often open their mouths wide and show off their massive teeth to try and ward off any intruder that tries to approach the water hole. In this case he was trying to warn all of us in the vehicle.

As we carried on watching this awesome display for a few minutes the behaviour started changing to something a lot more subtle and submissive as the pair then started moving around in a circle, head to tail, almost creating a whirl pool. At times one of them would role onto its side – a sure sign of submission.
This behaviour continued for some time.
We gradually came to realize that this was not two males, but rather a male and female, and the male seemed to be questing for a mating opportunity with this female.
Breeding is not strictly seasonal with hippos but most conceptions occur in the dry season, and the rainy season is the time of peak births. With that being said this male was almost certainly trying his luck with this female, despite the unseasonality of his endeavours. The sexual behavior of bulls looking for a female often entails the male wandering through a basking nursery of females sniffing at the cows’ backsides, to establish if she is sexually ready.

The two hippos are head to rump, going around in circle after circle as the male tries to sniff at the cow’s backside to find out if the is sexually mature and ready to mate. Hippo cows are sexually ready to conceive at 9 (7-15)years of age and usually calve at 2 year intervals. Their gestation period is 8 months.

After doing about 6 or so full circles the male would try and get alongside the female and then behind her and try to mount her. When a bull finds an oestrous female, he wastes no time in entering the courtship display and forces her into prostate submission, whereupon he mounts her. The female’s head is often forced underwater, and when she raises it to breathe, the bull may snap at her. If the female is not ready she may turn around and try to snap at the male in an attempt to chase him off. By the looks of things this female was not ready to mate with the male trying to court her.

The male eventually made his way around to the rear of the female and tried to mount her from behind.

The female thrashes her head around and tries to snap at the male to indicate she is not ready to mate.

The male was persistent and did not give up even though the female had reacted very aggressively towards him.

After numerous attempts of the male trying to subdue and mount the female, she seemed to have enough and started moving away from him. We carried on watching while the commotion calmed down. After five minutes or so the male slowly and submissively made his way closer to the female  at which point the whole process repeated itself, and they began the circling once more.

With a very happy vehicle we watched for a while longer but unfortunately nothing came of it, or at least while we were watching. Even though most conceptions occur during the dry-season nothing is ever set in stone when it comes to wild animals and the way they work in such mysterious ways. It was an incredible experience for myself and guests, as neither of us had ever seen something like this happen before.

About the Author

Guy Brunskill

Ranger

Guy grew up in the city of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. From a very young age he visited the bush each holiday. It was during these early years that his passion and interest was ignited for this incredible environment. After school he acquired a ...

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9 Comments

on Unusual Hippo Courtship

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Marinda Drake

Incredible experience Guy. I have never seen anything like this before. Do hippos always mate in the water?

Guy Brunskill

Hi Marinda, it is certainly something that is not seen very often and hopefully next time we will see the mating take place. Yes, the mating will always mate in water.

Darlene Knott

That was fascinating to read about. I cannot imagine how exciting it was to witness. Watching animal behavior is what keeps us coming back to Africa. Loved the video. Thanks for sharing, Guy.

Guy Brunskill

Glad you enjoyed it Darlene, it was very exciting to watch as they thrashed their heads around in the water and exposing their teeth. Different animal behavior is always something very exciting. Have you visited us here at Londolozi Darlene?

Darlene Knott

We have been to several countries in Africa (Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa) on safari, Guy, but have not made it to Londolozi! I enjoy reading your blogs though and who knows? We travel with Africa Adventure Company most of the time. There is absolutely no other place like Africa for us!

Denise Vouri

Most often we observe hippos in the water. How much time do they typically spend on land?? Is it mostly at night during their eating period? I’ve not observed the mating ritual but have often seen two males sparring. It’s loud and rather exciting to witness two large hippos rising out of the water, mouths opened wide, teeth exposed in a show of domination….. Good reporting!

Guy Brunskill

Hippos will majority of the time make their way out of the water at night to feed because their skin is very susceptible to dehydration from the sun, but with that being said they will move out of the water to feed during the day on cool overcast days when the sun is not as harsh. Watching both of those is very exciting – the sounds that resonate from the hippos are one of my favorite sounds in the bush.

Joanne Wadsworth

I learned some new and important facts about hippo’s through this blog post today. A rare and unusual opportunity of viewing mating behavior. I also appreciated your giving us information on age of cow hippo readiness to concieve and length of gestation. Amazing time lengths in season and such variance between all species! You explained the why’s if each step so that by the time the video was presented, we completely understood “the dance” and what was happening. Thanks!

Callum Evans

Very unusual sighting!

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