My, What Big Teeth You Have

Today on Chandra's It's a Wild Wild World, a pop quiz. In a trip through the African wilderness, what animal should you fear most?

a) Lion

b) Hippo

c) Crocodile

d) That very large poisonous snake in your sleeping bag

e) US TV journalist Geraldo Rivera, pointing out how he was pretty sure he was going to see troop movement at that location sometime soon, probably, honest.
If you guessed (d) then… I'd suggest you schedule an appointment with your psychiatrist to discuss your ophidiophobia, right after you look it up the dictionary. If you guessed (e) then… ha, ha, very funny, what do you think this is, a humor column?

No, the correct answer is (b) the hippo. Seriously. According to a recent Globe and Mail article, there are several things about a hippo that makes them the most dangerous animal on the continent. More quiz questions:

True or false: A hippo only has four teeth.
True. However they grow to be 19 inches long. That's 50 centimetres in metric.
True or false: Hippos are slow moving creatures.
False. They can run up to 18 miles per hour on land. That's faster than you in metric.
True or false: The plural of hippopotamus is hippopotami.
False. It's hippopotamooses.

The other thing that's important to know about the hippo is that it is apparently very, very grouchy. If you happen to stray into its territory, or if you get between a mother hippo and its baby it will attack and chomp you. Given the size of hippo teeth, a chomping will leave you with up to four fist-sized holes in your body. Even in Africa, you don't want to be that well ventilated.

Indeed, hippos are so touchy that in December one person was hospitalized and remains in critical condition and another was killed almost instantly in an attack. A few years ago, a pod of a dozen hippos left a path of death and destruction in Mali before villagers chased them into Niger. This may go a long way to explaining why Mali/Niger relations are not as good as they could be.

No one is quite sure why hippos are such grumpy animals. It might have to do with the fact that they have eight stomachs. If I had that many stomachs to fill on a daily basis, I'd probably be a bit on edge too. It may also have to do with the fact that hippos have yet to receive any royalties from that popular children's game “Hungry Hungry Hippos.”

Perhaps the most shocking thing to learn about hippos, though, is that they are not the cute, docile creatures we have been lead to believe. For example, it appears that Disney, of all companies, did not tell us the truth about a member of the animal kingdom; it has now been scientifically proven that hippos do not wear tutus and dance to classical music as shown in Fantasia.

As surprising as it might be to learn that the hippo is the most dangerous animal in Africa, you may be even more surprised to learn that it is not the most deadly creature overall. That honor goes to … the tiny mosquito, because it carries malaria. And while the mosquito has a much more favorable squish coefficient than a hippo (that is, you can squish it, rather than the other way around), there's an awful lot of mosquitoes.

So, it appears that popular myth and media accounts have lead us to fear one danger more than is really deserved, and ignore another danger that is really far more deadly than you'd think.

Imagine that.

To read more of Chandra's work, visit

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