Baby Hippo!

Congratulations, Funani and Otis!

After a rocky first start to their relationship (see Hippos: Big Love), river hippos Funani and Otis are now proud parents! On January 26, 2011, at about 11:30 a.m., Fu gave birth to a bouncing, baby…hippo. Hippos are a notoriously bellicose species, especially mothers with calves. Fu is no exception; therefore, we have been unable (as of yet) to definitively sex the little one. San Diego Zoo veterinarians have gotten a good visual and determined that our newest addition is healthy and doing well. This comes as no surprise, since this is Funani’s fourth offspring. It is, however, her first calf with Otis. The genetic pairing is a boon to the zoological population.

While motherhood is old hat for Funani, this is my first opportunity to work with a hippo calf and a chance for the two of us to learn a lot together. After just a few days, the little one has already learned tons. Unlike other neonates, hippo calves need to learn how to walk AND swim. In fact, this youngster was born in the shallow water of our river hippo exhibit, in front of a very excited audience of guests and employees, and immediately swam around to mother’s loving face. Soon, mother Fu was nudging the little one up onto the beach to take its first wobbly steps.

Boy or girl?

Nursing is another tricky task. They can, of course, nurse on land like other youngsters of the African wilderness, but they can also nurse underwater. Hippo calves can’t hold their breath for very long, though, and must come up for air pretty often.

The calf has learned to strictly obey mother’s rules and warnings. This is crucial for survival in the wild. When something strikes Mom as suspicious or dangerous, she communicates with the young one using short, but stern, grunts. You can bet there is also a great deal of infrasonic (ultra low-frequency) communication as well. The Zoo’s okapis (which also communicate through infrasound) have been paying a lot more attention to their neighbors these days. One could surmise the new voice of the calf is what has got them rapt.

Most recently, mother and calf have started venturing into the hippo barn. After three days on exhibit, there was quite a bit of clean up for us. But soon we had the pair back out for our guests to enjoy.

Funani has demonstrated herself to be a very dedicated and gentle mother. She can maneuver the kid around with the slightest of prodding from her huge snout and is very careful to know exactly where baby is before taking a step or lowering her massive frame.

So, what about dad? Unfortunately, male hippos are not the most trustworthy of parents. So, to be safe, we went ahead and separated Otis and Fu well before we determined she was due to give birth. For now, Otis is being held off-exhibit in our barn, where he has his own pool to laze around in.

We have yet to get a weight on this calf, but newborn hippos can weigh between 50 and 100 pounds (23 and 45 kilograms). Generally, they are fully weaned after six to eight months. So, come get a glance quickly, for it won’t be long before the youngster is a multi-ton leviathan like its parents!

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Hippo Photo Goes Global.

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