Large mammals such as hippos, elephants, buffalo and antelope are regarded as strictly herbivorous animals. But a new study suggests hippos many actually follow a broader diet, including eating meat.

Every now and then reports have surfaced about hippos engaging in an occasional hunt, scavenge a carcass and even stealing a crocodiles' lunch, but such behavior has been considered anomalis - until now, according researchers from the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as expressed in their news release.

In their study, an international team of researchers revealed carnivorous behavior is not that uncommon for hippos, but it may come at an additional cost: increased susceptibility to anthrax.  

Hippos, elephants, buffalo and antelope are often affected by the soil-borne disease when grazing in contaminated fields. The disease is caused by a bacterium known as Bacillus anthracis, which is found naturally in soil. Animals can contract anthrax by either breathing in or ingesting the bacterium's spores. The disease can be transmitted to humans when they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. It follows then that consuming meat puts hippos at an increased risk during anthrax outbreaks.

"The phenomenon of carnivory by hippos is crucial to an understanding of their susceptibility to this disease," Joseph Dudley, co-author of the recent study from the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, explained.

In fact, researchers found that anthrax outbreaks among hippos made then animals exhibit unusual characteristics, which they believe may be a result of consuming anthrax-infected carcasses – especially those of other hippos.

The study's findings also revealed a bit more about the animal's ancestry. "These reports fit the fact that hippos are the closest living relatives of whales, which are all carnivorous," co-author Marcus Clauss of the University of Zurich added.

The findings were recently published in the journal Mammal Review

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