Antique water horses

The year 2014: An enormous 64 foot long hippopotamus makes its way slowly down the River Thames. Longer than a double decker bus, it’s big soft eyes softly peer out of the water welcoming onlookers as it slowly glides past.

Created by the Dutch artist, Florentijn Hofman, this giant wooden art instillation was made as part of the Totally Thames festival, and someone has been rather witty and christened it ‘HippopoThames’. But this oversized, flat bottomed piece of art is not in isolation. Part of the festival includes a talk by Madame Trowel Blazer herself, Victoria Herridge, about the prehistoric Thames and the real hippopotamuses that lived there around 125,000 years ago.

Along with giant Straight Tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), an extinct type of rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus sp.), and cave lions (Panthera spelaea), hippopotamus were very at home in Britain 125,000 years ago. These were the modern hippos which are still around today, Hippopotamus amphibius. From Trafalgar Square, all the way up north to Derbyshire, during this rather warm interglacial period, Britain’s lakes and rivers were teeming with these giant mammals. There was another species of hippo that once lived in Britain, and Europe. An extinct hippo, that was the largest river horse ever to have existed.

A truly gorgeous fossil skeleton of Hippopotamus antiquus at Florence Palaeontology Museum (Image from here)

A truly gorgeous fossil skeleton of Hippopotamus antiquus at Florence Palaeontology Museum (Image from here)

Fossils of the European Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus antiquus) first appear in sediments 1.8 million years old, at the dawn of the Pleistocene. This big beast is slightly younger than the still extant Hippopotamus amphibius whose fossils are found dating to around 2 million years ago. As the name suggests, the European Hippopotamus was common across Europe during the Pleistocene, from Spain, Germany, Greece and Britain.

Along with a few minor differences in the teeth, the size tells the species apart from one another; H. antiquus was much larger than its cousin, around 1 and a half times bigger. It is unsure why this species grew bigger than the hippos you see today. With more resources around to support animals they can get bigger. Equally, it may have been through sexual selection: modern hippos today live in a pod of up to 30 within a territory of river with one male looking after it. Males will fight for territory. It may be that the European Hippo had larger male bulls which spread through the population. Whatever the reason, this was a very successful species and was around for almost 2million years. .

This big hippo first appears in Britain during the early Middle Pleistocene, around 860,000 years ago until around 400,000 years ago. Named after the site, Cromer in Norfolk, where lots of fossils from this time were found, the Cromerian is one of the more famous early Pleistocene times. This was mainly a warm interglacial time (although as typical of the Pleistocene, it was not many years of warmth; the climate dipped and peaked as glaciers melted and grew).

This was a different time in British prehistory, with giant Steppe Mammoths and Straight Tusked elephants stomping around, the lesser known sabre tooth, Homotherium, perched, waiting for its next meal, and a strange rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis) munching its way through the low lying bushes. The English Channel was non-existent. Instead fertile grasslands spread from the south coast to mainland Europe. Animals migrated freely back and forth up into Britain, and back down again to suit their needs.

With extreme cold glacial times following the Cromerian, the European Hippopotamus moved out of Britain, never to return. It would be another 250,000 years before a hippopotamus were to waddle into Britain again.

There is an odd, possible synonym to our big hippo; Hippopotamus major. This hippo lived around the same time as our European Hippo, and at some of the same sites. There is not a lot of information is out about this species; if it is a separate species. It is possible it is a sub-species (like the Siberian Tiger is a sub species of tiger). It may even be the same species as H. antiquus. With not a lot of fossils to assess and compare, it is difficult for us to determine.

A beautifully simple illustration of Hippopotamus major, from the classic book 'Men of the Stone Age'. (Image from here)

A beautifully simple illustration of Hippopotamus major, from the classic book ‘Men of the Stone Age‘. (Image from here)

Hippopotamus antiquus survived in Europe for many years, happily living in Italy, Greece, and Germany. It is a slight irony, that this, the biggest species of hippo spawned the smallest species: the extinct Cretan Dwarf Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus creutzburgi) which evolved a much smaller size to survive on an island.

We are unsure as to the main reason for it extinction; possible changes in environment, or a fall in temperatures. There were extreme climatic changes throughout most of the Pleistocene and the European Hippo appears to have become extinct at the same time of many of the other mega-herbivores. This was the biggest species of hippo to evolve, and was a very successful animal throughout Europe.

The Eruopean Hippo would be a delight to see today. Bigger than any hippo you would see in Africa, this would be a beast you wouldn’t disturb. Perhaps Florentijn Hofman and his giant wooden hippo should begin touring through Europe, retracing the steps of this lost giant.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

To find out more about the other hippopotamus that lived in Britain, click here.

Further Reading:

Mazza, P. P. A. (2014), “If hippopotamuses cannot swim, how did they colonize islands?”, Lethaia, in press [Article]

Mazza, P. P. A. & Bertini, A. (2012), “Were Pleistocene hippopotamuses exposed to climate-driven body size changes?”, Boreas, 42(1), pp. 194-209 [Article]

Stringer, C. (2006), ‘Homo britannicus. The incredible story of human life in Britain’, Penguin. [Book]

Stuart, A. J. & Lister, A. M. (2001), ‘The mammalian faunas of Pakefield/Kessingland and Corton, Suffolk, UK: evidence for a new temperate episode in the British early Middle Pleistocene”, Quaternary Science Reviews, 20. pp. 1667-1692. [Full article]

van der Geer, A. A. E. Anastasakis, G. & Lyras, G. A. (2014), “If hippopotamuses cannot swim, how did they colonize islands: A reply to Mazza”, Lethaia, in press [Article]

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