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It takes a scientific mind to see the grunting hulk of a hippopotamus and wonder whether, given sufficient motivation, such an improbable beast might ever become airborne.

And so to researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in North Mymms, Hertfordshire, whose painstaking examination of footage of the creatures revealed that when the hefty herbivores reach top speed they do indeed take off.

Video showed hippos got all four feet off the ground at once up to 15% of the time when thundering along at full pelt, often to chase off hippo rivals.

The finding plugs a gap in scientific knowledge and places hippos somewhere between elephants and rhinos in terms of the athletic prowess displayed by some of the heaviest land animals when they need to get a move on.

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