Based on morphological analyses, hippos have traditionally been classified as Suiformes, along with pigs and peccaries. However, molecular data indicate hippos and cetaceans are sister taxa (see review in Uhen, 2007, this issue). This study analyzes soft tissue characters of the pygmy hippo forelimb to elucidate the functional anatomy and evolutionary relationships of hippos within Artiodactyla. Two specimens from the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. were dissected, revealing several adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle. However, these adaptations differ functionally from most aquatic mammals as hippos walk along river or lake bottoms, rather than swim. Several findings highlight a robust mechanism for propelling the trunk forward through the water. For example, mm. pectoralis superficialis and profundus demonstrate broad sites of origin, while the long flexor tendons serve each of the digits, reflecting the fact that all toes are weight-bearing. Pygmy hippos also have eight mm. interossei and a well-developed m. lumbricalis IV. Retention of intrinsic adductors functions to prevent splaying of the toes, an advantageous arrangement in an animal walking on muddy substrates. Published descriptions indicate common hippos share all of these features. Hippo and ruminant forelimbs share several traits; however, hippos are unique among artiodactyls in retaining several primitive muscles (e.g., mm. palmaris longus and flexor digitorum brevis). These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that hippos diverged from other Artiodactyla early in the history of this group. Additional analyses of hindlimb and axial muscles may help determine whether this trajectory was closely allied to that of Cetacea.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Common hippopotamus
- Pygmy hippopotamus