When my guests see a rhino for the first time they are naturally amazed by this bizarre looking, massive creature with three toes and two horns growing out of its nose.The first comments I often hear are, “It looks so prehistoric” or “It’s like a dinosaur”. I don’t know exactly what it is that provokes these thoughts; maybe its the sheer size or its unique large horns, but I would agree.
Growing up, dinosaurs fascinated me. I had a collection of just about every model dinosaur that palaeontologists had managed to unearth. And I think it was my unforgettable, rhino-like, red and orange Triceratops that I think of when I see a rhino.
Now, the other animal that gets similar comments is the dinosaur-sized elephant. Discussing this with my guests led us to the question of just how old these two species are. And then onto who is older; the rhino or the elephant?
Well first off, neither are related to the dinosaurs and both appeared after the dinosaurs had gone extinct 65 million years ago. Elephant and rhino are both mammals whereas dinosaurs were reptiles. What I found interesting in my readings was that mammals did in fact exist for most of the reign of the dinosaur (evolving within 10 million years of each other), but survived through whatever it was that caused the dinosaur extinction (generally accepted to be a meteor strike).
When the rhino first appeared about 50 million years ago, it is thought to have looked similar to today’s tapir of South and Central America and Southeast Asia. The tapir is a large pig-like animal grouped with the odd-toed ungulates (zebra, horses, donkey and rhinos).
Later it diversified into various forms, evolving into the massive Paraceratherium 30 million years ago which stood 5m tall and weighed 20 tons (compared to the 2 tons of a white rhino). The elephant (6 tons) is the largest land animal of current day, however the Paraceratherium is the largest mammal to ever walk the earth.
When the earth cooled around 23 million years ago the rhino changed to a slightly smaller version, now with horns. One species had two horns that sat side by side on the nose, as opposed to one in front of the other. Another, probably the most iconic prehistoric rhino, was the Elasmotherium which had a gigantic horn that is thought to have measured 1m in length.
Some species of the rhino that came later on were hairy while others developed aquatic lifestyles similar to the hippo today. The rhino we see at Londolozi, namely the black and white rhino, are thought to have evolved 14 million years ago.
Fossil records show that the world was once teeming with many different species of rhino. It is believed that their decline could have been due to being out-competed by the newly-evolved elephant. So, as a species, the elephant is younger.
Like the rhino, the elephant is also know to have evolved from a small pig-like animal known as the Moeritherium which existed about 35 million years ago. The evolution of the trunk is believed to have given the predecessors of the modern elephant great advantage with over 185 extinct members described (it is believed that more than 300 species have existed), including the well-known mammoths which went extinct as recently as 4000 years ago.
Today there are two species remaining of the order Proboscidae; the African and Asian Elephants (although the African elephant was recently reclassified into two distinct species). The African elephant we see here at Londolozi is believed to have first appeared about 1.5 million years ago, making it a much younger species than the African rhinos.
Although not a descendant of the Triceratops, both the rhino and elephant spark the same sense of wonder and are something to truly marvel at. Two great icons, not only of the African bushveld, but flagship species for wilderness conservation all over the world. It is in our hands to ensure that they don’t go the same way as the dinosaurs!