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Contrasting selection pressure on body and weapon size in a polygynous megaherbivore

Cite this dataset

Shannon, Graeme et al. (2021). Contrasting selection pressure on body and weapon size in a polygynous megaherbivore [Dataset]. Dryad.


Sexual size dimorphism (SSD) is a common morphological trait in ungulates, with polygyny considered the leading driver of larger male body mass and weapon size. However, not all polygynous species exhibit SSD, while molecular evidence has revealed a more complex relationship between paternity and mating system than originally predicted. SSD is, therefore, likely to be shaped by a range of social, ecological and physiological factors. We present the first definitive analysis of SSD in the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius ) using a unique morphological dataset collected from 2994 aged individuals. The results confirm that hippos exhibit SSD, but the mean body mass differed by only 5% between the sexes, which is rather limited compared with many other polygynous ungulates. However, jaw and canine mass are significantly greater in males than females (44% and 81% heavier, respectively), highlighting the considerable selection pressure for acquiring larger weapons. A predominantly aquatic lifestyle coupled with the physiological limitations of their foregut fermenting morphology likely restricts body size differences between the sexes. Indeed, hippos appear to be a rare example among ungulates whereby sexual selection favours increased weapon size over body mass, underlining the important role that species-specific ecology and physiology have in shaping SSD.


The data were collected in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Uganda from 1961–1966 by Dr Richard Laws (Nuffield Unit of Tropical Animal Ecology) and his research team. Detailed morphological measurements (i.e. body mass, height, length and lower jaw weight) were taken from 2994 hippos culled in and around Lake Edward. All of the hippos were sexed and subsequently aged using jaw characteristics, tooth replacement and tooth wear as described in Laws (1968). The canine data were extracted from figures 12 & 13 in Laws (1968).

Laws RM. 1968 Dentition and Ageing of the Hippopotamus. Afr. J. Ecol. 6, 19–52.

Usage notes

Not all body size metrics were recorded for each hippo. Missing values are denoted by empty cells in the spreadsheet.