Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/May 1873/The Hippopotamus and her Baby
|←The Battle of Life Among Plants||Popular Science Monthly Volume 3 May 1873 (1873)
The Hippopotamus and her Baby
By Francis Trevelyan Buckland
ON the 5th of November, 1604, two hundred and sixty-eight years ago, the whole of London was in a state of commotion at hearing of the discovery of "Guy Fawkes" sitting in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament, on a powder-barrel, with a match in his hand, his intention being to blow up James I. and the House of Lords.
On the 5th of November, 1872, London was again put in a state of commotion by the appearance of another "Guy Fawkes;" this time, however, not in the cellar under the Houses of Parliament, but in the straw by the side of his mother in her den at the Zoological Gardens. In the engraving on page 86, you can now, kind reader, see the portrait of this celebrated animal, "Guy Fawkes," so called on account of the date of his birth. The father hippopotamus came over here in the year 1851, and was accompanied in his journey by the well-known captain of the "Rob Roy Canoe," who happened to be a fellow-passenger in the steamer with him. The female hippopotamus was sent over to England, by my friend Consul Petherick, at a later date. From these parents three young ones have been born at the Zoological Gardens; unfortunately, two of these interesting infants died. I made two casts of the first Baby Hippo: one cast is in the giraffe-house at the Zoological Gardens, the other is in my Fish Museum at South Kensington. The first two young ones remained by the head of the mother, evidently not knowing where the udder was. Mr. Bartlett, the talented and ever-obliging superintendent of the Zoological Gardens, tells me that, before these two hippopotami were born, the people at Paris and Amsterdam had written to him to advise him "never, on any account, to let the baby hippopotamus go into the water." He took their advice on the former occasions, but at the birth of "Guy Fawkes" he was determined to try the very reverse plan. He therefore allowed the young one to accompany its mother into the big bath. It is to Mr. Bartlett that must be ascribed the honor of the discovery that the young hippopotamus certainly sucks under water. It would seem, therefore, that the young hippopotamus has some peculiar anatomical structure which enables it to remain a much longer time under water than its parents.
A few days after the birth of the young one, Mr. Bartlett was watching it swimming about the tank. It then suddenly dived, but did not reappear for such a long time that he thought it had had a fit, and was lying drowned at the bottom of the tank. He therefore made arrangements to have the large plug pulled out—this plug had been fixed expressly for this purpose—and to run off the tank quickly, so as to resuscitate the little beast if possible. They were just going to do this, when Master "Guy Fawkes" suddenly reappeared, shaking his funny little horse-like ears, from the bottom of his tank, with a hippopotamic grin on his face, as much as to say, "Don't be frightened, I am all right; you don't know all about me yet!" The little beast had remained, without blowing or taking breath, actually under water for nearly twenty minutes. The parents have never been known to be under much over three minutes. I suspect Nature has given this
wonderful power of remaining so long under water to the young hippopotamus, first of all, to enable it to suck—when the water has been clear, Mr. Bartlett has frequently seen it sucking under water—and, secondly, in order that it may be concealed from its enemies, though I am not at all certain but that a large crocodile would seize and swallow a young hippopotamus as a jack would swallow a roach.
Master Guy Fawkes, nevertheless, had one day a narrow escape of his life. In order to clean out the tank, one fine sunny morning the mother and child were let out into the pond outside. They both remained in the water as long as it suited them, and then the mother walked out with that peculiar stately gait which distinguishes this gigantic animal. The little one attempted to follow, but, unfortunately, he chose a landing-place at the corner nearest the giraffes' enclosure, just at the very point where there were no steps. The poor little fellow struggled and fought hard to get out, but could not, tailing back exhausted into the water. His mother, seeing the distress of her child, immediately went back into the water, and, diving down, brought him up from the bottom. She then supported his head above water, in order to give him time to breathe. For nearly half an hour Mr. Bartlett and the keepers were in agonies. Of course, they dare not go to help Guy Fawkes, and there was no form of life-buoy they could throw to the struggling creature. At last the young one made a more vigorous effort than ever, when simultaneously the old one gave him a push with her tremendous head, and the little animal's life was thus saved. So we see that the hippopotamus is no fool; her instinct—mind, rather—told her how to save her young one.
It would be superfluous in me to attempt to describe this little animal, because every one ought to go and see it. It is about the size and shape of an ordinary bacon pig, but the color is something of a pinkish-slate. He knows his keeper very well: and when he has had his dinner is as playful as a kitten, popping and jumping about his den, and throwing up mouthfuls of hay, like a young calf. When first born he was small enough to come through the bars on to the straw outside his den, but soon he had grown so much that he could not get through. He used to put his head through the bars, and allow Prescott, the keeper, to rub his gums. The tusks of the lower-jaw were just beginning to cut the gum. His back teeth have not come yet; but they are obliged to be very careful about his diet, for he has already (when I write, in January) begun to pick a bit at the food prepared for him. I am pleased to be able to record that the council of the Zoological Society so fully appreciate Mr. Bartlett's cleverness in rearing this little beast, that they have voted him a silver medal and a purse, with a check in it. Prescott and the other keeper have also received a silver medal and a douceur from the society.
I now proceed to make some general remarks about hippopotami.
The hippopotamus is of some value commercially. The skin is made by the natives into whips, which, I believe, are used to beat delinquents in Egypt; and I am told that they are exceedingly formidable weapons. To make the whip, the skin is cut into triangular slips, about five or six feet long, one end being pointed, the other broad; it is then coiled upon itself, and afterward dried in the sun, and, when finished, is light, dry, and elastic. The teeth of the hippopotamus are also of commercial value. Their structure is very peculiar. I have a tooth now before; it is hollow at one end, like the tusk of an elephant. When the animal was alive, this hollow was filled with soft pulp. The tooth is always growing forward as the pulp solidifies behind. The reader can easily see how this is, by examining the front tooth of the lower jaw of the next boiled rabbit he has for dinner. The outside of the tooth of the hippo is formed of a glass-like, hard enamel; it is exceedingly dense, hard, and flint-like. I have just taken down my old regimental sword, and find that, by striking it at the proper angle, a shower of sparks fly away from the tooth, like the sparks from a boy's "fire-devil" made in form of a pyramid with wet gunpowder. The teeth of the hippopotami, as in the rabbit, are sometimes liable to deformity. In the College of Surgeons there is the tooth of a hippopotamus which has grown nearly into the form of a circle. These teeth are, I believe, much sought after by dentists for making artificial teeth; and when a piece can be had of such a form as that the teeth can be worked in enamel, they preserve their color almost as in the natural teeth. The price of hippopotami-teeth is about thirty shillings a pound. Artificial teeth are also made from the tusks of the walrus, the sword of the narwhal, and also the teeth of the cachelot whale.
Not long ago, the old male hippopotamus at the Gardens suffered much from a decayed tooth. In former times he would have been shot, as was poor "Chunee," the elephant at Exeter 'Change. Mr. Bartlett, superintendent of the Zoological Gardens, with his ever-ready talent in meeting all emergencies, determined to pull out the tooth. He ordered the blacksmith to make a pair of "tooth-forceps," and a tremendous pair they were. The "bite" of the forceps just fitted the tooth of the hippo. By skilful management, Bartlett managed to seize Master Hippo's tooth as he put his head through the bars. The hippo, roaring frightfully, pulled one way, Bartlett and the keepers pulled the other, and at last out came the tooth, and Hippo soon got well again.
No animal in this world is made without a purpose, and we always find that the structure of an animal is admirably adapted to its mode of life. I believe that one of the principal duties which the elephant and rhinoceros unconsciously perform, is to cut paths through the dense forests and jungles in which they live. The home of the hippopotamus is among the aquatic forests at the bottoms of large rivers such as the Upper Nile. It is probable that, in the days of Moses, these animals abounded in Lower Egypt. I believe now they do not occur in any part of the Nile below the cataracts, the headquarters being the central and southern parts of Africa only; but I am afraid that, as civilization increases, so will the hippopotamus retreat. This huge animal spends most of its time in the water, and it comes out to feed at night. Above the cataracts of the Nile they are very destructive to the crops, as they eat an immense quantity, and trample down much more than they eat. The stomach contains as much as five or six bushels, and the large intestine is eight inches in diameter. They do not grind their food much, but rather munch it up. The reader should be curious to notice this at the Zoological Gardens. When the old hippo opens its mouth, a good-sized baby could as easily be put in as one puts a letter into a letter-box. As the elephant makes passes in the jungles, so it appears to me that one of the chief offices of the hippopotamus is to keep in check the dense vegetation in tropical climates, which, if allowed to accumulate, would block up the long reaches of rivers, and ultimately turn the flat lands into useless, fever-breeding swamps: so that we see this gigantic animal is of very considerable economic importance. This living machine for the destruction of fresh-water vegetation is admirably adapted for its work. Nature has not given him any hair, as that would be an incumbrance to it, and would not well conduce to its comfort when wallowing in the mud. The skin is, therefore, somewhat like that of a pig. If the animal had not some protection against the sudden changes of temperature induced by his going in and out of the water so frequently, he would always be either shivering or else unbearably hot. Nature, therefore, has given him a thick layer of fat between the skin and the muscles. The Dutchmen in Southern Africa call the hippopotamus the "Zee-coe," or "Sea-cow." My friend Mr. Mostyn Owen, who has travelled a great deal in Africa, tells me that they also call him the "Umzivooboo; and should the reader happen to visit the Dee, near Ruabon, he would be exceedingly likely to see a coracle floating down the river with a gentleman sitting in it fishing for salmon, and he would also probably observe the name "Umzivooboo" painted on the coracle in large letters.
In the water, the hippopotamus, though a gigantic beast, shows very little of his carcass. On referring to the engraving, it will be observed that the nostrils, eyes, and ears, are on the same level. The nostrils are each provided with a wonderful valve, by means of which he can open his nostrils to breathe, or shut them up to exclude the water. This beautiful mechanism is worked by what is called a "sphincter muscle." Reader, your own eyes are worked by a sphincter muscle. Stand opposite the looking-glass and wink at yourself, you will then see a sphincter muscle in operation. You do not require a sphincter muscle to your nose, because you are not amphibious. We find, however, that the seal, like the hippopotamus, can close his nose at will with a sphincter muscle. Go and look at the seal in the Zoological. The valve which works the blow-hole of the whale and porpoise is of an analogous character. Strange to say, we find an animal that is not amphibious has his nostrils protected by this curious and beautiful valve. But you will probably never guess what animal this is. Well, it is the camel—the "ship of the desert." In the desert, where the camel lives, there are often "sand-storms," and the Creator has provided the poor camel with this wonderful structure to save him from suffocation when these terrible sand-storms occur.
Shortly after the little hippopotamus was born in the Zoological, a young rhinoceros was born on board a ship in the Victoria Docks, and this poor little animal, whose value was very great, unfortunately died—his mother lay on him and crushed him with her great carcass. Never mind, better luck next time.—Leisure Hour.