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Giant hippo fossils discovered in the UK

02 July 2004

Fossilised remains of two ancient hippos have been discovered in Norfolk by scientists at the Natural History Museum and Queen Mary, University of London.

Palaeontologist Simon Parfitt with ancient British hippo remains © Scott Barbour/Getty

Palaeontologist Simon Parfitt with ancient British hippo remains © Scott Barbour/Getty

The fossil bones of hippos, hyena, fish and rodents are providing a rare glimpse of the landscape of East Anglia 500,000-780,000 years ago. The fossil remains point towards a unique find of animals living in Britian during a warmer climate, never previously recorded.

Initial excavation work was led by Simon Parfitt, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum and Dr Simon Lewis, senior lecturer in Physical Geography at Queen Mary, University of London.

‘This is a rare and significant fossil find,’ said Simon Parfitt. ‘To find two hippopotamuses together is very unusual, but to find evidence of the land surface around them is exceptional. The excavation site provides a unique opportunity to study an environment that we believe has never been recognised before and that, if we don’t act quickly, could be lost forever.’

The hippos and other animals would have lived in the early Middle Pleistocene where exotic species, now found only in African savanna, would have roamed the landscape.
The ancient hippopotamus (Hippopotamus sp.) weighed about six to seven tonnes, much heavier than today's modern hippos weighing up to four tonnes. The ancient hippos had prominent eyes that acted as periscopes when under water. It is likely the hippos discovered died through natural causes and their bones show evidence of having being gnawed by hyenas.

The site is approximately 15 kilometres from Norfolk’s present-day coast and insect fossils indicate the summer temperature at that time was 2-3°c warmer than today.

A selection of the fossils will be on display at The Festival of Fossils on Thursday 1 July 2004. Simon Parfitt and other Natural History Museum scientists will also be available to discuss the hippo excavation and other recent scientific research.

Initial excavation work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Further research and an urgent rescue excavation is needed before the site is redeveloped in the next few months. The rescue excavation will be funded by English Nature through Defra’s Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. The remains uncovered will be held at the Natural History Museum and used in research by the Museum’s Palaeontology Department and scientists from around the world.