Fiona the Hippo's Signature Sass Made Her a Star, But Do Hippos Truly Have Personalities?

Fiona the hippo has drawn visitors from around the globe to the Cincinnati Zoo with her signature sass, and while she's unique in many ways, being a hippo with a personality isn't one of them.

"Keenan [Stears] and I had 'made the acquaintance' of quite a number of wild hippos in our research—some [are] cranky, some are sassy, some are chill," Doug McCauley, an associate professor in the University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology told Newsweek. Stears is a postdoctoral researcher in the department.

Fiona was born six weeks early, and without a precedent in caring for a premature hippo, her caretakers weren't sure she'd survive. But on Friday the "happy, healthy" calf will celebrate her third birthday. Her vibrant character and penchant for posing for the camera captured hearts, inspired a new brand of tourism in her hometown of Cincinnati and helped raise more than $90,000 in January to aid relief efforts for animals affected by Australia's wildfires.

Jenna Wingate, senior keeper of the Cincinnati Zoo's Africa Department, said Fiona's unique story sparks people's interest; then her "huge" personality (no joke intended) solidifies the fandom. At 3, she's still considered a young hippo, and over the years there have been only mild changes to her demeanor.

"I think it's growing a little sassier as she gets older, but she's still very sweet and playful," Wingate explained. "She's very much a people person. I guess I should say a people hippo."

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Fiona, a hippo that was born premature and lives at the Cincinnati Zoo, turns 3 on Friday, a milestone that caretakers weren't certain she'd reach in her early days. Cincinnati Zoo

Stears confirmed that most animals have personalities, noting that the scientific term is "behavioral phenotypic variation." Significant research hasn't been conducted on hippo personalities, but as is the case with humans, their environment can dictate how much of their personality is revealed.

In terms of Fiona, whom Stears hasn't observed in person, the traits that catapulted her to stardom could cost her her life in the wild.

"Being very bold, she might interact with a lot of other species, and that could get her killed," Stears said, referencing a National Geographic video of a bold, young hippo chasing a crocodile in Zimbabwe.

Fortunately for Fiona's fans, she lives within the safety of the zoo, where the biggest "risk" she faces is pushing the boundaries too far with her mom, Bibi. Their close bond hasn't stopped the young hippo from having an attitude with Bibi at times, a sign that she may grow up to be a dominant female like her mom. If that happens, Wingate assumes Bibi would continue to be the boss, given her seniority, but "Fiona just might make her work for it."

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Fiona with her mother, Bibi, and late father, Henry. Angela Hatke, Cincinnati Zoo/Getty

More than 1,200 miles from Cincinnati lives another young hippo, Timothy, who cohabitates with his grandmother, Uma, at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas. Kat Wheaton, the zoo's animal welfare and behavior manager, described Timothy, who tests the patience of older hippos just as Fiona does, as being "goofy," "silly" and "charismatic." He also said observing him alongside Uma revealed a distinct personality difference.

Whereas Timothy is quick to move past something different, Uma steps lightly and takes time to learn about the new object. With a 41-year age gap between them, differences in their behavior are expected, but when it comes to being careful, Uma's been that way for as long as some caretakers can remember.

"Historically, she's been very cautious. She's very aware of changes and anything new," Wheaton said. "She thrives on routine and consistency."

Fiona's personality also differs from the adults in her life, and she's the most people-friendly hippo out of her family. But that could be attributed to the positive interactions she had with humans early in her life, Stearns said.

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After her premature birth, Fiona spent 24 hours a day surrounded by humans who were tasked with feeding her, snuggling with her and making sure she grew into a healthy adult hippo. Angela Hatke, Cincinnati Zoo

Weighing only 29 pounds at birth, less than half the weight of a normal hippo, Fiona required constant care as an infant, and people sat with her around the clock, serving as surrogate parents. For weeks, they snuggled with her, fed her and even enlisted the help of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center to give her fluids through an IV made for premature human babies.

Bibi, who was born in a zoo but was under less intensive care than her daughter, will come if she's called, Wingate said. But unlike Fiona, she has no interest in getting out of the pool just to greet someone new. Her father, Henry, who died in October 2017, was a "happy medium" between the two. He would come over to say hi to his caretakers without being prompted, Wingate said, adding that he was "one of the sweetest hippos ever."

At around 5 and 8 years old, respectively, Fiona and Timothy are expected to reach maturity, which will likely bring changes. As with humans, hippos in adulthood have to deal with a new set of concerns. Stears said adult hippos that are focused on surviving may not showcase their personality as strongly as they did in their youth.

But the hippos they were as calves are the hippos they will remain throughout their lives. Experts say, after witnessing these animals in person, there's no question that they have individual dispositions.

"Anyone who says animals don't have personalities has never visited their local zoo," Wheaton said.