15 Things You Might Not Know About Rhinos

iStock.com/johan63
iStock.com/johan63

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.

Rhinoceros in a field with a pond
iStock.com/davidevison

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."

Three rhinos drinking water
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Crash of Rhinos also happens to be an emo band from Derby, England.

3. They used to be 16 feet tall.

older rhino walking with two younger rhinos
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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.

two rhinos standing in grass
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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.

Oxpecker bird sits on the head of a rhino
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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.

rhino spray urinating
iStock.com/Marti Malet

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.

rhino sniffing poop
iStock.com/krichie

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.

rhino sniffing another rhino's butt
iStock.com/1Photodiva

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.

two male rhinos fighting with their horns
iStock.com/TonyBaggett

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.

rhinos gathering with zebras
iStock.com/1001slide

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.

rhino's feet
iStock.com/Kantapatp

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.

close-up on a rhino's horns
iStock.com/alaincouillaud

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.

man with binoculars in the wild
iStock.com/Peopleimages

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.

Hundreds of Kangaroos Roam the Green at This Australian Golf Course

burroblando/iStock via Getty Images
burroblando/iStock via Getty Images

Anglesea Golf Club has all the makings of a regular golf club: an 18-hole golf course, a mini golf course, a driving range, a clubhouse, and a bistro. But the kangaroo mobs that hop around the holes add an element of surprise to your otherwise leisurely round of one of the slowest games in sports.

Person takes photo of a kangaroo
Anglesea Golf Club

According to Thrillist, the kangaroos have been a mainstay for years, and the club started giving tours a few years ago to ensure visitors could observe them in the safest way possible. For about 25 minutes, a volunteer tour guide will drive a golf cart with up to 14 passengers around the course, sharing fun facts about kangaroos and stopping at opportune locations for people to snap a few photos of the marsupials, which are most active in late afternoon and early morning. Kangaroos are friendly creatures, but Anglesea’s website reminds visitors that “they can also be quite aggressive if they feel threatened.”

Post-graduate students and academic staff from Melbourne University’s zoology department have been researching Anglesea’s kangaroo population since 2004, and some of the animals are marked with collar and ear tags so the researchers can track movement, growth, survival, and reproduction patterns throughout their life cycle.

One of the reasons kangaroos have continued to dwell on land so highly trafficked by people is because of the quality of the land itself, National Geographic reports. The golf course staff regularly sprinkles nitrogen fertilizer all over the green, which makes the grass especially healthy.

Kangaroos graze on Anglesea Golf Course
Anglesea Golf Club

If you decide to plan a trip to Anglesea Golf Club, you can book a kangaroo tour here—adult tickets are $8.50, and children under 12 can come along for just $3.50 each.

[h/t Thrillist]

10 Surprising Facts About Shoebill Storks

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

Shoebill storks have been called the world’s most terrifying bird (though the cassowary might disagree). These stately wading birds stalk the marshes of South Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere in tropical East Africa, snatching up prey with their unique, immediately recognizable bills. But there are a lot of misconceptions about shoebill storks—the first being that they're not actually storks. Here are some more surprising facts.

1. Shoebill storks could win staring contests.

Shoebills live in the vast wetlands of the Nile watershed in eastern Africa. You really can’t mistake them for any other bird: They grow 4 to 5 feet tall, have bluish-gray plumage and an 8-plus-foot wingspan, and their bill, which takes up a majority of their face, looks like a huge Dutch wooden clog. Shoebills can stand virtually motionless for hours with their bills held down against their necks. Complemented by their golden eyes, the posture affects a very convincing death stare.

2. Shoebills may be more closely related to pelicans than storks.

Shoebill stork looking at the camera
ApuuliWorld/iStock via Getty Images

Over the past couple of centuries, naturalists have debated where shoebills should appear on the Tree of Life. Some taxonomists said that the shoebill's syrinx, or vocal organ, resembled those of herons belonging to the family Pelecaniformes, which also includes ibises, pelicans, and boobies. Others countered that herons have specialized feathers than release a powdery down to help with preening, but shoebills didn’t have these feathers, so they must be storks belonging to the family Ciconiiformes. “There is, in fact, not the shadow of a doubt that it is either a heron or a stork; but the question is, which?” zoologist Frank Evers Beddard wrote in 1905. More recent studies on the shoebill's eggshell structure and DNA have supported its place among the Pelecaniformes.

3. Shoebills poop on themselves.

Shoebills practice urohydrosis, the effective—if revolting—habit of defecating on their legs to lower their body temperature. In fact, this characteristic confused taxonomists: In the past, some felt that the shoebill’s habit placed it within the family of true storks, since all true storks also use their own droppings to cool off.

4. European naturalists were introduced to shoebills in the 1840s.

Shoebill stork
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

A German diplomat and explorer named Ferdinand Werne was the first European to hear about the shoebill. On his expedition in Africa to find the source of the White Nile in 1840, Werne camped at Lake No, part of a 12,000-square-mile wetland called the Sudd in what is now South Sudan. Werne’s indigenous guides told him “that they had seen an extraordinary bird, as big as a big camel, with a bill like a pelican’s, though wanting a pouch,” according to a 1908 edition of The Avicultural Magazine.

About 10 years later, a collector named Mansfield Parkyns brought two shoebill skins to England, giving British zoologists their first look at the weird bird. At an 1851 meeting of the British Zoological Society, naturalist John Gould presented a description of the shoebill based on Parkyns’s specimens and gave it the scientific name Balaeniceps rex.

5. Shoebills are also called whale-headed storks.

Balaeniceps rex means “whale-head king,” evidently a reference to its bill shape resembling the head of a baleen whale (as well as a shoe). Other names for the shoebill include the boat-bill, bog-bird, lesser lechwe-eater (referring to the shoebill’s alleged taste for lechwe, or aquatic antelope), and abu markub, or “father of a slipper” in Arabic.

6. Shoebills love lungfish.

Yum, lungfish! These air-breathing, eel-like fish grow to more than 6 feet long and comprise the shoebill’s favorite food. Shoebills also chow down on actual eels, catfish, lizards, snakes, and baby crocodiles. To catch their prey, shoebills stand still in the water and wait for an unsuspecting fish to appear. Then, the bird swiftly “collapses” on its target, spreading its wings and diving down bill-first to ambush the fish. Then, with the fish in its mouth, it decapitates it by grinding the sharp edges of its bill together.

7. Shoebills really earned their fierce reputation.

Victorian photographers learned the hard way that shoebills could be as mean as they looked. “The shoebill is capable of inflicting a very powerful bite,” 19th-century zoologist Stanley S. Flower wrote, “and is by no means a safe bird for a stranger ignorant of its ways to approach, a fact which we often have to impress on amateur photographers anxious to obtain ‘snap-shots’ of Balaeniceps at close quarters. It has been amusing to see how rapidly in some cases their enthusiasm has waned, when (as requested) confronted with the great bird screaming shrill defiance and crouching as if were about to spring, with gaping bill and half-spread wings.”

8. Shoebills have always been a rare curiosity at zoos.

Shoebill stork with its mouth open
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

In the 19th century, the Sudanese government made the shoebill a protected species, but that did not stop collectors from attempting to transport shoebills to zoos. Flower, then director of the Zoological Gardens in Giza, Egypt, brought three shoebills (along with four giraffes, nine antelopes, a lion, a leopard, three servals, two ostriches, two porcupines, an aardvark, five tortoises, a crocodile, and several other animals) on a train north from Khartoum to the gardens. The temperature rose to 118°F and the irritated shoebills barfed up their dinners. Their diet of fresh fish that Flower had ordered never materialized, so he resorted to feeding the birds canned shrimp. Miraculously, the birds arrived at the Zoological Gardens in one piece and survived in captivity for at least five years. Today, only a handful of zoos open to the public have shoebills, including the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the Dallas World Aquarium.

9. Shoebills are worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

Shoebills rarely breed in captivity: In the last hundred years at least, only two chicks have hatched. In today’s zoos, all shoebills were either born there or were legally collected from the wild. Unfortunately, their scarcity and mystique have also made shoebills a sought-after bird for poachers in the illegal wildlife trade. According to Audubon magazine, private collectors in Dubai and Saudi Arabia will pay $10,000 or more for a live shoebill.

10. Shoebills are at risk of extinction.

The IUCN Redlist estimates between 3300 and 5300 mature shoebills live in the world today, and that number is decreasing. The iconic birds are threatened by a number of anthropogenic forces, including loss of their marshland habitat from farming, livestock ranching, oil and gas exploration, fires, pollution, and more. International wildlife groups and local conservationists are monitoring shoebill habitats in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia and patrolling the sites for poaching, but much more attention is needed to protect shoebills.

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