Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Craptastic Conversations of the Black Rhinoceros

What are you saying with your smells? Image by
Animals communicate in all kinds of ways: with vocalizations, body language, vibrations, and even odors. In fact, compared to most species, we are pathetic in our abilities to communicate with body odor. With just a whiff of eau de crotch, many animals can decipher that individual’s species, sex, age, health status, reproductive status, emotional state, and dietary history. Some species can go so far as to make out that individual’s exact identity (*Sniff Sniff* Oh! Hi Mike!).

There are a lot of advantages to using odors to communicate. For one thing, messages sent by smell are more likely to be honest than messages sent by other means. (You might be able to do a pretty good Shakira impersonation, but you can’t hide the fact that you had a tuna sandwich for lunch and haven’t brushed your teeth since). Another advantage is that unlike other signal types, an odor signal can be left behind, kind of like those sticky-notes you leave on your food in the fridge.

How do scientists know which species use odors to communicate and what information these signals contain? This investigatory process involves a lot of reasoning.

A solitary black rhino. Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth
at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wayne Linklater, Katha Mayer and Ron Swaisgood, an international team of researchers associated with Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, University of Potsdam in Germany, and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California, set out to test whether black rhinoceros use odor to communicate. Although rhinos lack the specialized scent glands that many smell-communicating species have, there are many reasons to suggest that they are a likely species to communicate this way.

A photo of field assistant Brayden
Crocker with rhino dung scrape mark.
Photo by Wayne Linklater.
Black rhinos are solitary. Females often have overlapping ranges, but males’ territories only overlap at their boundaries. This means that they would rarely encounter one another and would benefit from a means to leave “sticky-notes” behind to indicate where their territories are. Furthermore, despite their poor eyesight, male black rhinos have a poop-ritual in which they scrape at the ground and spread their dung. Although female rhinos don’t spread their poo, they do spray their pee when they are ready to mate.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife Veterinary and Game-Capture Team captured a number of black rhinoceros from the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife Reserves in South Africa in order to relocate them to other reserves for conservation purposes. At this time, Wayne, Katha, and Ron collected dung from rhinos with known sexes and ages. They stored the dung in labeled plastic bags and froze them to preserve the odor freshness for a series of experiments to explore the extent of the black rhinos’ abilities to communicate with their bodily waste.

In one experiment, the researchers asked whether black rhinos could differentiate between the dung of males and females and between the dung of adults and immature subadults. They presented rhinos with the dung of young males, young females, adult males and adult females, and then measured how many times they sniffed each and how long they spent sniffing. The rhinos spent more time sniffing male dung than female dung. This means that rhino poop likely communicates the sex of the pooper. Rhinos also responded differently to adult and subadult poop, suggesting that they can tell whether the pooper is an adult or not.

In order to test whether rhinos may be able to tell the individual identity of the pooper, they did a habituation-dishabituation test. Habituation is when an animal gets used to something that happens repeatedly and stops responding to it. For example, the first time you heard Gangnam Style, you probably stopped what you were doing and maybe even learned the dance. But now it has been so ridiculously over-played that when you hear it, you just ignore it. Dishabituation happens when an animal is exposed to something slightly different and has a heightened response again. Kind of like the excitement over Psy’s new song, Gentleman, even though it sucks.

A photo of rhino performing flehmen, a behavior that helps
waft odors for better odor detection. Photo by Wayne Linklater.
Wayne, Katha, and Ron exposed rhinos to the same individual’s dung three times to see if their interest in it waned. With each presentation, the rhinos spent a little less time sniffing it. When the researchers put poop from a different rhino (that was the same sex and age as the first pooper) in front of them, their interest returned. This suggests that rhinos can tell the individual identity of the pooper from his/her poop.

But can rhinos use their poop like “sticky-notes”? The researchers aged dung for 1, 4, 16 and 32 days and put them in front of rhinos to smell. Their response was the same, no matter how old the dung was. This indicates that rhinos can spread their poop to leave an “I was here” message for at least a month.

As fun as it may be to spend years studying rhinoceros poop, there are some important uses for research like this. Black rhinos are critically endangered, largely due to hunting, poaching and habitat loss. In fact, Mozambique's Limpopo National Park declared the last of their rhino population killed as recently as last month. Conservation efforts such as captive breeding programs and reintroductions have helped in several areas, but have not been enough to sustain the populations. Conservationists could apply this knowledge of how rhinoceros use dung odors to communicate to these breeding and reintroduction efforts in order to make them considerably more successful.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Linklater, W., Mayer, K., & Swaisgood, R. (2013). Chemical signals of age, sex and identity in black rhinoceros Animal Behaviour, 85 (3), 671-677 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.12.034


  1. sad to hear about waning populations and people's inability to see value in an animal other than the money it can bring them.

  2. This is a great article. It's heartbreaking, and, quite frankly, DISGUSTING to hear that the last of the black rhino populations are gone from Mozambique. Thank you for this important research! Question: What was your sample size for collecting data about communicating through odor? How many rhinos did you present the "aged" dung to? Thanks so much!

    1. In their "aged dung" experiment, Wayne Linklater, Katha Mayer and Ron Swaisgood presented dung to four adult females and one adult male.