A new rhino species?

Jeremy Hance
April 11, 2011

New rhino species is close to extinction.

Using genetic data and re-assessing physical evidence, scientists write that they have uncovered a new species of rhino, long considered by biologists as merely a subspecies. Researchers write in an open access PLoS ONE paper published last year that evidence has shown the northern white rhino is in fact a distinct species from the more commonly known—and far more common—southern white rhino. If the scientific community accepts the paper's argument it could impact northern white rhino conservation, as the species would overnight become the world's most endangered rhino species with likely less than ten surviving.

The researchers found that the skull of the northern and the southern white rhino are 'readily distinguished' and that the animals can be differentiated simply by looking at them. In addition, the genetic study found that the northern and southern white rhino diverged around a million years ago.

"Its taxonomic distinctiveness argues strongly for its conservation, as its demise will mean the permanent loss of a unique taxon that is irreplaceable," write the authors.

Currently 8 northern white rhinos are confirmed to survive, however four of these though are no longer able to breed. The last four northern white rhinos capable of saving the species were transferred from Dvur Kralove Zoo in 2009 to a conservancy in Kenya where they are guarded around the clock.

While dire, the situation may not be utterly hopeless.

"The admirable success of the conservation histories of the Southern white rhino and the Indian rhino, both of which were brought back from the brink of extinction by successful conservation efforts, does, however, hold out hope that the northern white may yet be saved for posterity," write the authors.

Conservationists hope that by providing the four rhinos—two males and two females—with their natural habitat will provide a better chance for breeding. Rhinos are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.

CITATION: Groves CP, Fernando P, Robovský J (2010) The Sixth Rhino: A Taxonomic Re-Assessment of the Critically Endangered Northern White Rhinoceros. PLoS ONE 5(4): e9703. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009703.

Related articles

Last breeding northern white rhinos will return to Africa

(12/17/2009) Only eight individual northern white rhinos survive in the world, making it the world's most endangered large mammal. Unfortunately, half of the rhinos are unable to breed. The remaining four—the last hope for the subspecies—will be moved this weekend from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to conservancy in Kenya.

Video: camera trap proves world's rarest rhino is breeding

(02/28/2011) There may only be 40 left in the world, but intimate footage of Javan rhino mothers and calves have been captured by video-camera trap in Ujung Kulon National Park, the last stand of one of the world's most threatened mammals. Captured by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Indonesia's Park Authority, the videos prove the Javan rhinos are, in fact, breeding. "The videos are great news for Javan rhinos," said Dr. Eric Dinerstein chief scientist at WWF, adding that "there are no Javan rhinos in captivity—if we lose the population in the wild, we’ve lost them all."

Last year worst yet for rhino killings in South Africa

(01/19/2011) Three hundred and thirty-three rhinos were killed in South Africa last year, the highest number yet. Ten of the rhino were black rhinos, which are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the rest were white rhinos, listed as Near Threatened. In total South Africa has over 20,000 rhinos.

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (April 11, 2011).

A new rhino species? .