The rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal on Earth, next to the elephant. It's also one of the most aggressive. But despite its reputation as the bully on the playground, rhinos are vulnerable when it comes to one great danger: humans. Their ranks have drastically dwindled over the past century due to poaching and habitat loss, and conservationists are now trying to save them from extinction. In recognition of Save the Rhinos Day on May 1, here are 15 important facts about nature's knight in armor.
1. They're Greek—at least in name.
The word rhinoceros stems from the Greek words rhino (nose) and keras (horn). So when you shorten the word to "rhino," you're really just saying "nose."
2. A group of rhinos is called a "crash."
Crash of Rhinos also happens to be an emo band from Derby, England.
3. They used to be 16 feet tall.
The paraceratherium, a hornless species of ancient rhinoceros that roamed the Earth 30 million years ago, stood over 16 feet tall. Modern rhinos are significantly smaller, of course, but scientists don't really know how they evolved. The white rhino, which grows up to 6 feet tall, is the largest of the five species that exist today. Measuring under 5 feet in height, the smallest is the Sumatran rhino, which is the only hairy species as well as the closest living relative of the extinct woolly rhinoceros.
4. White rhinos and black rhinos are actually the same color.
They're both essentially grayish-brown. One widely spread rumor suggests that white rhinos were originally called wijd (wide) by Dutch settlers in Africa, referring to the animal's wide mouth, which was then mistranslated into English as "white." However, rhino expert Kees Rookmaaker has stated that there is no linguistic evidence to support that tale. It remains a mystery how the white rhino got its name.
5. Rhinos say mmwonk when they're happy.
Indian rhinos are known to make at least 10 distinct sounds, including honks (used during head-to-head fights), bleats (signaling submission), and moo-grunts (used between mothers and calves). Black rhinos use grunts as a greeting and make a mmwonk sound when they're content.
6. They have a complicated relationship with the oxpecker bird.
Rhinos are often seen with oxpeckers hitching a ride on their backs, but the benefit of these birds is currently debated. The traditional argument is that they snack on bugs and ticks that crawl on the rhino's skin, but in 2000, research on cattle failed to find a consistent benefit to having oxpeckers, while a 2004 study on captive (and tick-free) rhinos found that rather than being helpful, oxpeckers spent much of their time picking at wounds and feasting on the rhino’s blood [PDF]. Meanwhile, other researchers argue that the birds actually do eat ticks and the like. The birds may give the rhinos one additional benefit though: A 2010 experiment found that without oxpeckers, black rhinos were able to detect a person walking up to a rhino 23 percent of the time. With the oxpeckers present that shot up to 97 percent, perhaps explaining why in Swahili, the oxpecker is referred to as the "rhino's guard."
7. They're long-distance sprayers.
In a show of dominance, alpha male Indian rhinos can spray urine a distance of over 16 feet. This is typically done in the presence of other males or breeding-age females. Other rhinos also spray urine: For males this is typically for marking territory, while female Sumatran rhinos [PDF] have been observed spray urinating 69 times in a 12 hour period before giving birth, and continued this behavior even after the calf was weaned, likely to mask the scent of the calf.
8. They communicate through poop.
White rhino droppings are unique identifiers, meaning that a rhino can take one whiff of a dung heap and instantly know the animal's age, sex, and reproductive status, according to one study. All white rhinos in a particular area head to the same spot to defecate, called a midden, which is essentially a communal dumping ground.
"We think of dung as just a waste product, but it's really a good way for animals to communicate," Courtney Marneweck, the head of the study, told National Geographic. "There's a lot of information there that we haven't taken advantage of."
9. Their farts smell like sulfur.
Rhinos are notorious for passing particularly noxious gas, according to the book Does It Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence:
"Rhino farts also smell really bad, so much so that they have even given rise to a piece of brewing terminology; when the yeast used to make alcohol through fermentation produces hydrogen sulfide it gives off a horrible sulfur smell, known as a rhino fart."
10. The males can get aggressive.
Rhinos aren't afraid to use their horns when it comes to matters of the heart. Male black rhinos are particularly aggressive in their pursuit of a mate, and the rate of "mortal combat" among these horned lovers is higher than any other mammal on the planet. About half of males and 30 percent of females die from injuries sustained while fighting.
11. They're related to zebras.
The closest living relatives to rhinos are not elephants or hippos, but rather horses, tapirs, and zebras, all of which are classified as odd-toed ungulates. Rhinos and tapirs walk on three toes, while horses walk on one (which we know as a hoof).
12. They have sensitive feet.
Speaking of toes, rhinos do have one weak spot. Rhinos typically put most of their weight on their toenails when they walk to avoid wearing out their sensitive feet. This is easy to do in the wild, where marshes and mushy wetlands abound, but when they're brought to zoos, their toenails tend to wear down on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt. This can lead to swollen, sore, and cracked feet, making them more susceptible to infection. To tackle this issue, one zoo glued modified horseshoes onto a rhino's toes, which you can read about in the book The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes.
13. They're wallowers.
But not because they're depressed. For a rhino, a nice mud bath is like a day at the spa. It not only helps the animals cool down in hot weather, but it's also great for their skin, helping to ward off pesky insects. Although the animals have a pretty thick dermis, they're surprisingly vulnerable when it comes to bug bites and sunburn.
14. Their horns are made of the same protein found in human fingernails.
Rhino horns are made up of nothing but keratin, but that doesn't stop poachers from killing thousands of the animals each year and selling their horns on the black market. The horns are fashioned into jewelry and figurines, and in some parts of Asia they're believed to hold healing properties (they don't).
15. They risk extinction.
Just a century ago, there were more than half a million rhinos around the world. Now, around 30,000 survive in the wild, largely due to poaching. All five species of rhino are in danger, but three are considered critically endangered: Sumatran, Javan, and black rhinos. Today, there are about 60 remaining Javan rhinos, fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos, and about 5500 black rhinos.
There is some good news, though. Thanks to conservation efforts, black and white rhino numbers have increased in recent years, with the white rhino having been "brought back from the brink of extinction," according to the World Wildlife Fund. The organization Save the Rhinos is taking a multi-pronged approach to the issue, working to deploy more field rangers to protect the animals, reduce demand in Asia, and breed rhinos that are currently in captivity.
This story was republished in 2019.