Pygmy Hippopotamus: Habitat and Characteristics

The pygmy hippopotamus is smaller than the common species. It's found in zoos and nature reserves, but its life in the wild is unknown in some respects.
Pygmy Hippopotamus: Habitat and Characteristics

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Hippopotamuses are mammals that inspire a certain amount of fear because of how large and aggressive they are. However, they have been quite susceptible to environmental changes over the centuries. For this reason, there are currently only two living species: the pygmy hippopotamus and the common hippopotamus, which differ in particular by their size.

Both specimens belong to the family Hippopotamidae. The pygmy hippopotamus is the smaller of the two, but is no less interesting. Its scientific name is Choeropsis liberiensis and it stands out on many fronts on a biological level. Learn all about it in the following article.

Pygmy hippopotamus habitat

The pygmy hippopotamus lives in the western part of the African continent. Its geographical range includes four different countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

The habitat of this mammal is restricted to wooded areas near bodies of water, as it needs to moisten its skin on a regular basis. It can be found near rivers, streams, and swamps with dense vegetation, as it likes to shelter for protection.

A pygmy hippopotamus.

Physical characteristics of the pygmy hippopotamus

As mentioned above, C. liberiensis is the smallest hippopotamus in the world, measuring from 150 to 175 centimetres in body length (5 – 5.7 feet), plus 20 centimeters (8 inches) for its tail. It has a shoulder height of 70 to 100 centimeters (2.2 to 3.3 feet) and can reach 270 kilograms (nearly 600 pounds) in weight.

These mammals have a massive barrel-shaped body, small head and four robust legs, each with four long and slightly webbed toes ideal for semi-aquatic life. Even so, they have features that denote that they’re more terrestrial than the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). From their mouths, we can see protruding fangs, which have a defensive rather than a feeding role.

These mammals have brown or black skin, which has a gray tone on the lower part of the body. They don’t have any fur and only have hair on their snout and tail. An interesting fact is that they produce a reddish-colored secretion that’s often mistaken for sweat or blood. However, it has nothing to do with either of these substances.

The reddish secretion is a compound with a protective function, as the epidermis of the pygmy hippopotamus is thin and sensitive.

Subspecies of C. liberiensis

There are two subspecies or types of pygmy hippos. These are as follows:

  • C. liberiensis liberiensis, the nominal or reference species.
  • C. liberiensis heslopi or Heslop’s hippopotamus. It was located in Nigeria, although since the 1940s there’s no more data of its existence, so it’s presumed to be extinct.


These hippos are solitary in their habits, although they have been observed in small groups (usually a couple, or a juvenile with its mother). The period of frequent activity is at night or during twilight and they rest during the day, although this isn’t always the case. Some specimens carry out diurnal tasks.

The distribution ranges of individuals overlap, so they aren’t territorial. They like to take refuge in rivers, swamps, or streams among roots or tree trunks, but also in hollows or burrows. Even so, it isn’t known if they build these spaces or take advantage of already established ones.

As far as their communication is concerned, little information is available. These hippos may emit some grunts or whistles, but they’re usually silent. They also emit chemical or olfactory signals as alerts and during the reproductive period.

Pygmy hippo feeding behavior

Oddly enough, hippos aren’t predators, but herbivores. Their menu is entirely plant-based. This includes a wide variety of plants and parts of plants: shoots, tubers, herbs, semi-aquatic and, to a greater extent, fallen fruits, ferns and broad-leaved species. They usually feed during the afternoon and evening hours.

Hippopotamuses consume whatever plants are available, regardless of type or species, so their diet is generalist.

The reproduction of the pygmy hippopotamus

The reproduction of these animals is viviparous and experts don’t know how it occurs in the wild, as their only observations have been made in captive animals. Let’s look at some details about the reproductive behavior and birth of these mammals.


Mating is noisy, can occur on land or in the water, and takes place at any time of the year (usually every 7 to 9 months). Hippos maintain monogamous relationships in zoos. However, it’s suspected that this doesn’t occur in the wild due to overlapping territories of one male with several females.

Gestation and offspring of pygmy hippos

The gestation period lasts about 6 to 7 months. After this, the pregnant females give birth to a single calf weighing about 5 kilograms (11 pounds), which is born fully developed. The birth takes place both on land and in aquatic areas, but if the waters are too deep the baby hippo runs the risk of drowning.

At 3 months of age, the young hippopotamuses already begin to eat solid food, while weaning occurs from 6 to 8 months. Sexual maturity is reached between 3 and 5 years of age in both sexes.

Conservation status

The pygmy hippopotamus has suffered a population decline in recent years and is at risk of extinction. It is classified as “Endangered (EN)” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The main threat to its survival is the fragmentation or loss of natural habitat due to the increase and extension of agricultural areas. These fascinating mammals are also hunted for the value of their meat. Ironically, their tusks are of no commercial importance.

A pygmy hippo under water.

In summary then, the pygmy hippopotamus is one of only two species of hippopotamus today. It’s currently struggling for survival in natural environments, where it’s losing more and more space. Although it’s bred in captivity in protected areas, it’s important to implement more plans to help this solitary animal in the wild.

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