Rhinoceros: Habitat, Behavior, and Diet

Scientific Name: Ceratotherium, Diceros, Rhinoceros, and Dicerorhinus

Rhinoceros Totem
Nigel Dennis / Getty Images

There are five species of Rhinoceroses—Ceratotherium simum, Diceros bicornis, Rhinoceros unicornis, R. sondaicos, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis—and for the most part, they live in widely separated ranges. By most counts, there are less than 30,000 rhinoceroses alive today, a steep plunge in population for a mammal that has existed on the earth, in one form or another, for 50 million years.

Fast Facts: Rhinoceros

Scientific Name: Five species are Ceratotherium simum, Diceros bicornis, Rhinoceros unicornis, R. sondaicos, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis

Common Name: White, Black, Indian, Javan, Sumatran

Basic Animal Group: Mammal

Size: 4–15 feet tall, 7–15 feet long, depending on species

Weight: 1,000–5,000 pounds

Lifespan: 10–45 years

Diet: Herbivore

Habitat: Subharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent

Population: 30,000

Conservation Status: Three species are Critically Endangered (Javan, Sumatran, black), one is Vulnerable (Indian), one is Near Threatened (white)


Rhinoceroses are perissodactyls, or odd-toed ungulates, a family of mammals characterized by their herbivorous diets, relatively simple stomachs, and ​an odd number of toes on their feet (one or three). The only other perissodactyls on earth today are horses, zebras, and donkeys (all belonging to genus Equus), and the strange, pig-like mammals known as tapirs. Rhinoceroses are characterized by their large sizes, quadrupedal postures, and single or double horns on the ends of their snouts—the name rhinoceros is Greek for "nose horn." These horns probably evolved as a sexually selected characteristic—that is, males with bigger, more prominent horns were more successful with females during mating season.

Considering how big they are, rhinoceroses have unusually small brains—no more than a pound and a half in the largest individuals, and about five times smaller than a comparably sized elephant. That is a common attribute in animals which have elaborate anti-predator defenses like body armor: their "encephalization quotient" (the relative size of an animal's brain compared to the rest of its body) is low.

Rhino standing in front of a water hole
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There are five extant rhino species—the white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, Indian rhinoceros, Javan rhinoceros, and Sumatran rhinoceros.

The largest rhinoceros species, the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) consists of two subspecies—the southern white rhinoceros, which lives in the southernmost regions of Africa, and the northern white rhinoceros of central Africa. There are about 20,000 southern white rhinoceroses in the wild, the males of which weigh over two tons, but the northern white rhinoceros is on the brink of extinction, with a mere handful of individuals surviving in zoos and nature reserves. No one is quite sure why C. simum is called "white"—this may be a corruption of the Dutch word "wijd," which means "wide" (as in widespread), or because its horn is lighter than that of other rhinoceros species.

Actually brown or grey in color, the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) used to be widespread across southern and central Africa, but today its numbers have dwindled to about half those of the southern white rhinoceros. (In Greek, "bicornis" means "two-horned"; an adult black rhinoceros has a larger horn toward the front of its snout, and a narrower one directly behind.) Black rhinoceros adults rarely exceed two tons in weight, and they browse on shrubs rather than grazing on grass like their "white" cousins. There used to be a bewildering number of black rhinoceros subspecies, but today the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recognizes only three, all of them seriously endangered.

The Indian or greater one-horned rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis, used to be thick on the ground in India and Pakistan until a combination of hunting and habitat destruction restricted its numbers to the puny 4,000 or so individuals alive today. Full-grown Indian rhinos weigh between three and four tons and are characterized by their long, thick, black horns, which are prized by unscrupulous poachers. On a historical note, the Indian rhinoceros was the first rhino to be seen in Europe, a single individual shipped to Lisbon in 1515. Plucked from its natural habitat, this unfortunate rhino quickly died, but not before it had been immortalized in a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, the sole reference point for European enthusiasts until another Indian rhino arrived in England in 1683.

One of the rarest mammals in the entire world, the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicos) consists of a few dozen individuals living on the western edge of Java (the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago). This cousin of the Indian rhinoceros (same genus, different species) is slightly smaller, with a comparably smaller horn, which has not, sadly, prevented it from being hunted to near-extinction by poachers. The Javan rhinoceros used to be widespread across Indonesia and southeast Asia; one of the key factors in its decline was the Vietnam War, in which millions of acres of habitat were destroyed by incendiary bombing and poisoning of vegetation by the herbicide called Agent Orange.

Also known as the hairy rhinoceros, the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is almost as endangered as the Javan rhinoceros, with which it once shared the same territory of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Adults of this species rarely exceed 2,000 pounds in weight, making it the smallest living rhinoceros. Unfortunately, as with the Javan rhinoceros, the relatively short horn of the Sumatran rhinoceros hasn't spared it from the depredations of poachers: The powdered horn of a Sumatran rhino commands over $30,000 per kilogram on the black market. Not only is D. sumatrensis the smallest rhino, but it's also the most mysterious. This is by far the most vocal rhino species and herd members communicate with one another via yelps, moans, and whistles.

Habitat and Range

Rhinoceroses are native to Subharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent, depending on their species. They live in a variety of habitats, including tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas and shrublands, tropical moist forests, and deserts and xeric shrublands.


Rhinos are all herbivores, but their diets depend on their habitat: Sumatran and Javan rhinos feed on tropical vegetation, including some fruits, while black rhinoceros are primarily browsers that feed on herbs and shrubs, and Indian rhinos feed on both grasses and aquatic plants.

They require a great deal of time to forage and spend most of their active time doing that. Rhinos can be active day or night and generally regulate their activity depending on the weather. If it's too hot or too cold, they will stay near water.


If there's one place the average person does not want to be, it's in the path of a stampeding rhino. When startled, this animal can hit top speeds of 30 miles per hour, and it's not exactly equipped to stop on a dime (which may be one reason rhinos evolved their nasal horns as they can absorb unexpected impacts with stationary trees). Because rhinos are basically solitary animals, and because they have become so thin on the ground, it's rare to see a true "crash" (as a group of rhinos is called), but this phenomenon has been known to occur around watering holes. Rhinos also have poorer eyesight than most animals, another reason not to linger in the path of a four-ton male on your next African safari.

The closest rhinoceros bond is between a mother and her offspring. Bachelor rhinos congregate in small crashes of three to five, and sometimes as many as 10, to cooperate against predators. Rhinos may also gather around limited resources, water pools, wallows, feeding areas, and salt licks, always staying one body length apart.

Reproduction and Offspring

All rhinoceroses are polygamous and polyandrous—both sexes seek multiple mates. Courting and mating can occur at any time during the day. During courtship, males engage in mate-guarding behavior until the female is in full estrus and will permit males to approach her. Indian male rhinos whistle loudly to announce reproductive condition and location, six to 10 hours before breeding activity.

Gestation takes 15–16 months, and by two months of age, calves are weaned and may be left alone while the female forager a few feet away. When separated temporarily, the female and her calves stay in contact through vocalizations. Calves suckle until the calf is two or the mother conceives again; they become completely independent at three years. Females become sexually mature at 5–7, and males at 10 years. Rhinos typically live between 10 and 45 years, depending on the species.

Female rhino with cub
 mantaphoto/Getty Images

Evolutionary History

Researchers trace the evolutionary lineage of modern rhinoceroses back 50 million years, to small, pig-sized ancestors that originated in Eurasia and later spread to North America. A good example is Menoceras, a tiny, four-footed plant-eater that sported a pair of small horns. The North American branch of this family went extinct about five million years ago, but rhinos continued to live in Europe until the end of the last Ice Age (at which point Coelodonta, also known as the woolly rhino, went extinct along with its fellow mammalian megafaunas like the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger). One recent rhinoceros ancestor, Elasmotherium, may even have inspired the unicorn myth, as its single, prominent horn struck awe in early human populations.

Woolly Rhino
Daniel Eskridge/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Conservation Status

All of the five species of rhinoceroses are listed as endangered or vulnerable ty the IUCN. Three are listed as Critically Endangered (Javan, Sumatran, and black rhinos); one is Vulnerable (Indian), and one is Near Threatened (white).

Couple on safari trip with tour guide, taking pictures of rhinos out of 4x4 vehicle
  Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images


Rhinoceroses have been continually driven relentlessly to the brink of extinction by human poachers. What these hunters are after is rhino horns, which, when ground up into powder, are valued in the east as aphrodisiacs (today, the largest market for powdered rhino horn is in Vietnam, as Chinese authorities have recently cracked down on this illicit trade). What's ironic is that the horn of a rhinoceros is composed entirely of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair and fingernails. Rather than continuing to drive these majestic animals into extinction, perhaps poachers can be convinced to grind up their toenail clippings and see if anyone notices the difference!


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Strauss, Bob. "Rhinoceros: Habitat, Behavior, and Diet." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-rhinoceroses-4134431. Strauss, Bob. (2021, September 6). Rhinoceros: Habitat, Behavior, and Diet. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-rhinoceroses-4134431 Strauss, Bob. "Rhinoceros: Habitat, Behavior, and Diet." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-rhinoceroses-4134431 (accessed June 10, 2023).