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What's The Cleverest Thing A Hippo Can Do?

Hippopotamus, Lake Naivasha
ivanmateev/Getty Images
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Hippopotamus showing over the waters of Lake Naivasha

What is the cleverest thing hippos can do? This week we’re answering 7 quirky questions about animals! Why do elephants like peanuts? Why do cows put their tongues up their noses? Has anyone ever ridden a tiger? How do woodpeckers cling to trees? Why is some bird poop black and some is white? Why do people make animals like sharks and bears sound way scarier than they are? Answers from Keenan Stears of the University of California Santa Barbara. Christine Scales of Billings Farm & Museum, shark researcher Kady Lyons, and the Bird Diva Bridget Butler.

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What is the cleverest thing a hippo can do?
– Elliot, 8, England

The cleverest thing a hippo can do? Woah, I can’t wait to hear how this one gets answered! We turned to Keenan Stears of the University of California Santa Barbara for some help with this tricky query.

“The first thing that comes to mind that highlights the intelligence of hippos is the ability to identify hippo friends from hippo enemies by the smell of their dung,” he said.

Dung is a word for poop.

“Dominant male hippos use dung middens to mark their territories. A dung midden is a place where an animal repeatedly goes to drop their dung. The dung middens act as a way that hippos can keep track of the other hippos in the area. So when moving through the environment, hippos can sniff out areas where their hippo friends live, versus areas where their hippo enemies live and they can do all of this just by smelling the dung in middens.”

Bet you didn’t think the cleverest thing hippos can do might involve poop. And just in case it wasn’t totally clear, a midden is basically a waste pile. So a dung midden is kind of like a toilet or an outhouse. It’s where the hippos go repeatedly to poop. But, as Stears told us, it also serves another purpose. While humans can’t tell their poop from someone else’s, other animals can sniff out individuals this way, and use dung or urine—pee—to mark their territories.

Hippos aren’t the only animals to use dung middens this way, by the way. Rhinoceroses do this too! Other animals, like dogs, cats, bunnies and monkeys also sniff feces and urine as a way to learn about their fellow species, but they don’t always leave their “messages” in the same place.

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer, and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. She also produces special projects for the station. Until March 2021, she was the host of the award-winning Vermont Public Radio program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the senior producer for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids.