Hippopotamus Diet: What do These Massive Creatures Eat?

Learn about what hippos eat, both in the wild and in captivity!

Oct 23, 2023By Michael C., BA Fisheries and Wildlife
hippopotamus diet what do these massive creatures eat

The hippopotamus’s diet is rather confusing. Though many people believe that hippos are meat eaters due to their fearsome reputation and massive tusks, they’re mostly vegetarian! However, there’s much more to a hippopotamus’s diet than most people realize. Read on to learn more about the dietary habits of the hippo!

Common Hippo Diet

herd of hippos in water
Image credit: Paul Maritz/Wikimedia Commons

Even though the common hippopotamus may look fierce, this beast’s diet mostly consists of plants. Unbelievably, hippos seem to be rather picky eaters in the wild; their diet consists almost entirely of grass. Researchers have noted that hippos rarely eat other plants, even turning their noses from aquatic vegetation!

Hippos spend most of the day wallowing in water, as their skin is prone to desiccation in the hot African sun. It also keeps them nice and cool to beat the scorching heat. At night, temperatures often cool down and allow the hippos to leave the water to eat. Their thick, tough lips allow them to grasp and tear out grasses as they graze. They’ll spend up to around 5-6 hours a night feasting upon grasses. Hippos also eat around 80 pounds of grass a night, which, oddly enough, isn’t all that much in comparison to their body weight!

Though a hippo’s long, sharp tusks seem rather frightening, they’re used primarily for self-defense. The tusks of a hippo have almost nothing to do with their feeding habits. Their molars, however, crush up any grass they consume for easier digestion. However, hippos have been reported to scavenge on carrion. Hippos may also eat meat to supplement extra nutrients in their diet and are usually observed doing so in times of drought. This behavior is considered abnormal, as their bodies aren’t suited for digesting meat. However, a recent study published in 2016 argues that this behavior could be more common than previously believed.

Pygmy Hippo Diet

pygmy hippo in zoo
Image credit: Bardrock/Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, unlike their larger cousins, a pygmy hippo’s diet is much more varied. Being in dense tropical rainforests, the pygmy hippo has a wider variety of foods to choose from. They prefer feasting on ferns, leaves, and fruits. Interestingly enough, aquatic plants are also rarely taken, but they’re much less picky than their relatives! Pygmy hippos usually browse on any branches and shrubs they may encounter, or may also forage on the forest floor for fallen fruits. Grass makes up a very insignificant portion of their overall diet if anything. As of 2023, there is no verifiable report of a pygmy hippo eating meat in any shape or form.

Similarly to the common hippo, pygmy hippos also emerge on land at night to feed. As they live in dense rainforests, pygmy hippos have to navigate through thick vegetation. By doing so, they form game trails through the jungles, which they mark by scent. They do this in a rather gross manner: they splatter their own poop by wiggling their tails all over!

As pygmy hippos are rare and mysterious by nature, there is still much to learn about their dietary habits. More research is being conducted on the behavior and ecology of this endangered species!

What About Zoo Animals?

hippo eating watermelon in water
Image credit: Woodland Park Zoo

Unlike their wild cousins, hippos tend to have very varied diets in captivity, snacking on a wide variety of foods. Hippos of both species eat lots of hay, but they’ll also be fed other foods to supplement or enrich their diets. Herbivore pellets are also given to provide extra nutrition for captive hippos, as their zoo diet may not fully replicate the nutritional needs that are obtained by hippos in the wild. In some zoos, some hippos are even allowed to graze in pastures if their habitats are suitable.

Hippos are also given a variety of treats to enrich their diets. Just like us, hippos can become bored from eating the same things every day! To change things up, fruits and vegetables such as apples, cabbage, and watermelons are all offered to hippopotamuses as they are often relished by them. Pumpkins are also a favorite treat as they float in the water, providing zoo animals with extra exercise as they chase and swim to pursue the large, orange morsels.

As hippos in captivity are typically more sedentary than their wild cousins, they are prone to obesity and other health problems. In the wild, a hippo may walk around 5 miles a night while grazing for grass, but in captivity, they don’t require as much movement to get the food they need. Often, their breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all offered right to them! Both species also require lots of fiber, which is included in their carefully formulated diets.


head of hippo peering out of water
Image credit: Dallas Zoo

Hippos are mostly herbivorous animals by nature. Meat is only taken more so in desperation during droughts and other harsh conditions, as their nutritional needs can be lacking during these hard times. The pygmy hippo has a much more diverse palette than their savanna cousins. In zoos, both species receive diets specifically suited for both nutritional and enrichment needs. Both in the wild and in captivity, hippos require a plant-based diet with lots of fiber to stay happy and healthy.

Michael C.
By Michael C.BA Fisheries and Wildlife

Michael holds a BS degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University. He formerly worked at a pet store as an animal care associate and is the former president of the MSU Herpetological Society. Michael currently owns three snakes (a corn snake, a Kenyan sand boa, and a checkered garter snake) and a leopard gecko. Interests include almost anything animal-related. Michael enjoys drawing, gaming, and having fun in his free time.