About 5,000 years ago a man was killed by a hippopotamus. So says the historian Manetho, writing long, long after the supposed event. The man in question was pretty important: his name was Menes (archeologically identified with Narmer, of Palette fame), and he unified Upper and Lower Egypt, inaugurated the Old Kingdom, reigned for 62 years and then met his hippo-ey fate.
Sure, this is the stuff of what is essentially legend, and it’s difficult to see how a man of that age and rank would contrive to get himself killed by a hippo. There’s some suggestion that there was a hippo-lancing ritual which might have gone wrong, but if you were going to bet on hippo vs. the field in Narmer’s death, you’d probably take the field. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that in the historical record, dubious though it may be, Egypt’s very first pharaoh got fucked up by a hippopotamus.
This makes perfect sense, because the hippo is a finely tuned murder machine.
According to common knowledge, the most dangerous animal in the world is the humble mosquito. This is both entirely correct — mosquito-borne diseases have killed hundreds of millions of people worldwide — and sort of misses the point. Mosquitoes aren’t dangerous. They are vectors for danger. It’s like saying a cough is dangerous because Covid-19 might kill you. Yeah, sure, fair enough, but it’s SARS-CoV-2 you’re actually worried about.
Next on the list — although it probably depends whose list you take — are snakes, followed by dogs, crocodiles, and then we have our pals the hippos. What could be scary about a hippo? Aren’t they gigantic, squishy, slow-moving pals? Land-manatees?
NO. THEY ARE NOT. THEY ARE DEATH.
Look at those teeth. Anyone imagining hippos as cute and cuddly should immediately have their illusions perforated by this absolute nightmare of dentition. When God designed the hippo, He took a look at the miracles of modern orthodontics and decided to do the opposite. The result is like some mad scientist crossbred their precious Zwilling knife block with someone else’s face.
I think my favorite thing about hippo teeth is that their canines — which can be more than a foot and a half long — are self-sharpening. When hippos close their mouths, their upper and lower teeth grind against each other and eventually get polished into grotesque points. SELF-SHARPENING TEETH.
Why would nature do this? It’s not because of their diet. Hippos like to eat plants, browsing near their home rivers at night. It’s not like they’re chomping their way through wildebeest on the open plains (although, would watch). The real reason hippos possess their awesome array of teeth is other hippos.
Hippos live in rivers. Rivers aren’t very big. Male hippos preside over short chunks of river with a cohort of females and defend their territory vigorously. The problem is that it’s quite hard to hurt a hippo, which are essentially cement mixers on legs with two-inch-thick skin. Thus begins a literally vicious cycle of tooth, blubber and blood.
Okay, so, scary teeth, blah blah. But they’re hippos. We literally just described them as “cement mixers on legs”, and one of the notable things about cement mixers is their lack of locomotive prowess. Hippos might be territorial and aggressive, but those stubby little legs can’t possibly propel them fast enough to endanger a running human. Right?
I bet you can guess where that rhetorical question is going: WRONG. On land, those stumpy legs can generate top speeds of around 20 miles an hour, which is definitely enough to get you within chomping range. In the water, it’s even more terrifying, because hippos don’t actually swim. Instead, what they do is trundle along the riverbed and lunge upwards when they want to annihilate something. The result is spectacular:
To add insult to murder, hippos will also shit on you. This behavior stems from the original sin of hippodom: the need to dominate territory. Male hippos mark their ground by pooping on it, and to ensure the message is as clear as possible they spread that poop far and wide. The mechanism by which they do this is a helicopter tail spin, employed while evacuating, which makes standing behind a hippo fraught with disgusting peril. Do not do this.
To sum up: a hippo will gleefully kill you with gigantic teeth and then spray poop all over your corpse. Between you and me, I think this makes them truly, truly horrible animals, but I fear the consequences if I give them less than an …