Home Commentary A State of Mind Trotting to a Different Drummer

Trotting to a Different Drummer

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As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with climate change and the possibility of flooding, asteroids striking the earth, and the supervolcano that is Yellowstone National Park erupting, lately the news has contained a number of stories about another giant natural threat to humanity.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What could be worse than climate change, Lare!?” I’m talking hippopotamuses.

As pointed out by an article in Smithsonian magazine (July-Aug. 2024, pp. 101-113), South America may soon (well, within many decades at least) be literally overrun by them. All thanks to Pablo Escobar. 

You may remember Pablo Escobar as the kingpin of the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia back in the 1980s and 1990s. After Escobar really annoyed the officials in Bogota and was killed by the police, his vast estate fell into disrepair. Escobar, who at the height of his power was worth more than $30 billion, had purchased various exotic animals for a menagerie on his estate, including four hippos. 

As Escobar’s estate crumbled back into the jungle, the Colombian government decided that the hippos were too large and too hard to deal with. So it did what governments do best and just ignored them. The hippos liked that arrangement and soon escaped into the Magdelena River basin, where there was plenty of food and they had free time in which to make more hippos. Officials now believe there are about 200 hippos in the wild and predict that, if nothing is done to stop them, the population could reach 1,400 by the year 2040.

This probably wouldn’t be a problem except they eat a lot of crops and hippos are one of the more dangerous animals in the world. 

I’m sure we all remember from eighth grade science class that mosquitoes account for millions of human deaths per year. Only approximately 500 people are killed by hippos each year, which is a small number compared with mosquitoes, but twice the 250 humans killed by lions. And if you compare the number 500 with deaths from attacks by the much-dreaded sharks, which kill less than 10 people a year world wide, you might wonder why we do not have “Hippo Week” on Discovery Channel or a “Hipponado” movie on SyFy instead of “Sharknado 7.”

The reason we don’t is probably that hippos are perceived to be cute and cuddly. Who can forget the ballerina hippos in tutus in Disney’s film “Fantasia” dancing to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” or the zoo hippo Gloria in the animated feature “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” who demurely titters and blushes when she is told by a wild male hippo that she is “huge!”, which is apparently the ultimate compliment in hippo culture. How could such creatures be dangerous? For heaven’s sake, they don’t even eat the people they kill – they’re vegetarians.

And Colombians seem to feel the same way. When the government proposed just shooting Escobar’s hippos, there was an outcry. 

The government is now in the middle of an expensive program to sterilize the hippos rather than kill them. 

I don’t want to be a fear monger here, but getting them under control is essential. The Magdelena River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, so from Colombia they can move north along the coast to Yucatan. From there it’s a short hop to Texas and the Florida Everglades! They could easily end up replacing the audioanimatronic versions of themselves in the Jungle Boat ride at Disney World.

So imagine my shock and concern when a few days ago reports began to appear (CNN, Forbes, the New York Post, etc.) with headlines that hippos can fly! Such an ability would hasten their spread, and given that hippos produce 20 pounds of dung per day and mark their territory by flinging that dung by furiously wagging their tails, much like a farm manure spreader in a puffy coat, the thought of flying hippos was terrifying.

As it turns out, “flying” was a bit of hyperbole. What was meant according to researchers is that hippos can get airborne when moving at high speeds over land.

This was apparently very important information and a “missing part of the puzzle,” according to John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary biomechanics and the lead author of a study published in the journal PeerJ and done at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom. According to Hutchinson, this is the first time the way hippos move on land has been studied. 

After analyzing videos showing 169 movement cycles from 32 hippos, Hutchinson’s team found that hippos almost exclusively trot; that is, the two diagonal limbs move in the same direction at the same time, followed by the two other diagonal limbs, regardless of the speed at which the hippo is moving. Other four-legged animals, such as horses, have a range of gaits – walk, trot, canter, gallop, and so forth – and switch between them depending on how fast they are moving. 

Hutchinson and his fellow researchers found that the fastest-moving hippos spend around 15% of each stride off the ground. Not exactly flying, but not bad for a two-ton animal with a bad temper.

I am grateful to the scientists at the Royal Veterinary College for solving this puzzle and relieving my mind, but I am still concerned about that manure spreader aspect, especially if hippos start to move north from Disney World toward Vermont.