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Digestion studies in captive Hippopotamidae: a group of large ungulates with an unusually low metabolic rate


Marcus Clauss, Division of Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstr. 260, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland. Tel: 0041 44 635 83 76;
Fax: 0041 44 635 89 01; E-mail:


We performed intake and digestibility studies in four common (Hippopotamus amphibius) and four pygmy (Hexaprotodon liberiensis) hippos from two zoological institutions, using acid detergent lignin as an internal marker for the quantification of faecal output. In the case of one pygmy hippo, where total faecal collection was also possible, there was no distinct difference between the two methods of faecal output quantification. Two animals from each species were tested on a conventional zoo diet of hay and concentrates (diet HC) and on hay only (diet H). The other two animals received fresh grass at two different levels of intake (diets G1 and G2). Dry matter (DM) intake was higher on HC than on H or G diets, and averaged 37 ± 11 for common and 35 ± 14 g/kg0.75 for pygmy hippos. There were no species differences in the average digestibility (aD) coefficients. Non-dietary faecal nitrogen averaged 65 ± 4% of total faecal nitrogen, aD of crude protein (CP) averaged 67 ± 9% and true protein digestibility 89 ± 3%. Average digestibility of DM and crude fibre averaged 54 ± 11% and 45 ± 17%, respectively. In comparison with ruminants, hippos generally achieve lower aD for DM, organic matter and fibre parameters, but equal or higher aD CP coefficients. This is most likely due to the absence of significant fermentative activity in the hindgut and the corresponding low metabolic faecal nitrogen losses. Digestible energy intake was higher on HC than on H or G diets and averaged 0.30 ± 0.11 MJ/kg0.75 metabolic body mass. This value is extremely low for ungulates, supporting earlier suspicions that hippos have particularly low metabolic rates, and explains the proneness of this species to obesity in captivity when fed energy-dense pelleted feeds.