They Have Bird Sidekicks, And Other Fascinating Facts About the Rhino

Rhinos, the stocky tanks of the animal kingdom, were once prevalent across North America, Asia, and Africa, but their numbers – and range – have fallen sharply in more recent history. Hunting, poaching, and habitat loss are the main contributors to their population decline. In fact, of the five rhino species, three – the Javan, Sumatran, and black rhino – are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. The other two, the white rhino and the greater one-horned rhino, are near threatened and vulnerable, respectively.

There are fewer than 100 Javan and Sumatran rhinos, and the black rhino subspecies the western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011. Among the three remaining black rhino subspecies, there are an estimated 6,500 individuals. Though white rhinos are doing a little better, with a population of around 16,000, it’s a far cry from historic population figures. As recently as 150 years ago, there were over a million black and white rhinos in Africa.

Read on to learn more about these iconic animals and why it’s important that we help them.

They’ve Been Around A While

The era of the dinosaurs was quite some time ago, but the original rhino actually arrived on the scene closer to when dinosaurs lived than to present day. The first rhinos were found in North America between 50 and 55 million years ago, which is 10 to 15 million years after dinosaurs went extinct.

Their Horns Just Keep Growing and Growing

Closeup of rhino and its horn

Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails, so it’s not surprising that they keep growing throughout a rhino’s life. For Javan and greater one-horned rhinos, they have a solitary growing horn, while the other three species have two.

White rhino horns can grow up to several inches a year and have been known to reach a length of up to five feet.

A Group of Rhinos Has a Fun Name

Group names for animals can be fun: a murder of crows, a bloat of hippos, a conspiracy of lemurs. Rhinos are no exception to the interesting labels. A group of rhinos is called a crash. Typically, a “crash” would consist more of females and offspring, as male rhinos tend to be more solitary and territorial.

They’d Accompany You to the Spa if it Meant a Mud Bath

Rhino playing in mud

A spa day can be a relaxing way to treat oneself, and rhinos may not be averse to the activity if there was a mud bath in it for them. Much like pigs, rhinos love a good wallow in the mud. It seems fun enough, sure, but it also helps cool them down, protect their skin from sunburn, and deter insects from bugging them.

Their Urine Stream is Impressive

The rhino’s tank-like body packs power in a variety of ways, but one of them is its ability to urinate. Rhinos can shoot their pee up to 15 feet away. It’s not just a party trick, though. Males can use this skill for territorial reasons, while a female may do so during mating season to let males know she’s in the mood.

They Have Bird Sidekicks

Rhinos with birds

There are plenty of mutually beneficial species relationships in the animal kingdom, and rhinos are part of one of them. You’ll often find birds called oxpeckers riding along on rhinos’ backs. While perched up there, they’ll eat insects off rhino’s bodies and let them know when there’s danger, which is helpful to rhinos, who are known to have terrible eyesight. Research has also shown that the presence of oxpeckers makes rhinos less apt to encounter people, as the birds help make them aware of an approaching human. It may be why in Swahili, the oxpecker’s name is “rhino’s guard”.

Scientists Once Won an Award for Studying Upside Down Rhinos

Hanging rhinos upside down may seem like a strange experiment, but the scientists had a good reason to do it – and they earned accolades for it. The Ig Nobel awards, somewhat silly honors presented by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, once gave their transportation award to researchers who studied how rhinos’ bodies respond to hanging upside down.

It sounds silly, but that is often a transportation method for the animals when they’re relocated elsewhere via helicopter, and the team wanted to see if it was healthy for the rhinos’ lungs and hearts. They found that it was actually preferable to having them lie down or on their sides, so they ensured rhino comfort while making people giggle with the visual. This is appropriate for the Ig Nobel awards, which aim to make people laugh but also to think.

Other Research Highlights Their Individuality

Rhino mother and calf

When you’ve been around for tens of millions of years, you’ve certainly had time to develop your own quirks, and rhinos have definitely done so. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden shared that according to an experiment they undertook, their rhinos have personality traits including curiosity, carefulness, playfulness, and boldness. They identified these characteristics through a novel object temperament test, which is used on animals to help determine their ideal environment and stimuli, or to see if they would be good candidates for releasing back into the wild.

They’re Beneficial for the Environment

Much like so many other species at risk, the rhino plays an important role in its ecosystem, and its absence would have a strong negative impact. As rhinos graze, they help ensure vegetation balance, and the plant life they help also provides benefits to other animals that rely on those plants. Additionally, their mud wallowing helps create and maintain watering holes, while their impressive daily poo total – up to 50 pounds – helps fertilize soil.

They Face Threats

Closeup of rhino with sad eyes

With three species critically endangered, one vulnerable, and one near threatened, there are many factors putting the rhino’s survival at risk. The main threat is a resurgence in poaching. WWF says that in recent years, this has led to as many as 100 rhinos being killed each month. Poachers are after the rhinos’ horns, which are used in traditional medicine and are also displayed as a symbol of wealth. Habitat loss and fragmentation are increasingly problematic, too, as human development continues to expand, while climate change may impact their breeding habitat.

We’re working with partners to help address threats to the rhino’s survival. If you’d like to join in, click below!

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