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Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names

  • Black rhinoceros
    • Origins unclear
      • Possible explanations
        • Named "black" to distinguish it from the white rhino (see White Rhino Fact Sheet for possible origins of that name)
        • Possibly derived from dark appearance after wallowing in local dark-colored mud
  • Other common names
    • Browse rhino
    • Prehensile-lipped or hook-lipped rhinoceros
    • Rhinoceros noir (French)
    • Spitzmaulnashorn (German)
    • Faru (Swahili)

Scientific name

  • Etymology (from Gotch 1995)
    • Genus Diceros
      • From two Greek words; di meaning "two" or "double" and keras meaning "a horn"
    • Specific epithet
      • From two Latin words; bi meaning "twice" and cornu meaning "the horn of an animal"
  • Genus
    • Formerly included black and white rhinoceros
      • Genetic differences between black and white rhinos led to reassigning white rhinos to a separate genus, Ceratotherium
        • Mitochondrial DNA analysis estimates range from about 4.5% (George et al., 1993) to 14% (Brown & Houlden, 2000)
  • Subspecies
    • 4 recognized subspecies
      • 3 extant (living)
        • D. b. bicornis - southwestern black rhino
        • D. b. michaeli - eastern black rhino
        • D. b. minor  - south central black rhino
      • Recently extinct
    • Dissagreement on subspecific designations (du Toit, 1987; Rookmaaker, 1995; Rookmaaker, 1998) (see Distribution and Habitat)
      • Also known as "ecotypes"
      • Arguments for designation
        • Conflicting studies compare genetic differences
      • One study found no significant genetic differences between ecotypes (Amato et al. 1993)
      • Mitochondrial analysis suggests about 2.6% difference between D. b. minor and D. b. michaeli (Brown & Houlden 2000)


Evolutionary history (from Lacombat 2005; Steiner & Ryder 2011 unless otherwise noted)

  • Closest living relative
    • Tapirs
  • Perissodactyls (odd-toed hoofed mammals)
    • First appear in the fossil record around 58 million years ago (upper Paleocene)
  • Rhinoceros evolution
    • Early fossil records
      • Hyrachyus eximus, earliest knonw rhinoceros-like mammal (Prothero et al. 1986)
        • Size of a large dog, with hooves and herbivorous teeth but no horns
        • Lived in Wyoming, Europe, Canadian Arctic, and possibly Asia during middle Eocene
    • Three families evolved in late Eocene
      • Hyracodontidae
        • Running rhinos
      • Amynodontidae
        • Aquatic rhinos
      • Rhinocerotidae
        • Ancestors of modern rhinos
    • Rhinocerotids appeared in late Eocene in Eurasia, later spread to North America
      • Early species small in size
      • New species evolved - ecologically diverse, distributed throughout the world
        • Once widespread in North America; died out there about 4 million years ago
    • Woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) lived in Eurasia during last ice age (Kuzmin 2009)
      • Hairy, with flattened saber-like horn
      • Some specimens found frozen in permafrost and preserved in peat bogs
      • Became extinct around 12,000 years ago (Late Pleistocene)
    • Modern rhinos
      • 5 modern species of rhinoceroses
        • All evolved over the past 26 million years, according to molecular analyses (Steiner & Ryder 2011)
        • Indian rhinoceroses
          • Appeared around 26 million years ago (late Oligocene)
          • Oldest modern rhino lineage; with single horn
        • Sumatran rhinoceroses
          • Appeared around 25 million years ago (late Oligocene)
        • African rhinoceroses
          • Appeared around 17 million years ago (early Miocene)
            • Species subsequently diverged from a this common ancestor
          • Includes black and white rhinoceroses
            • Species diverged from a common ancestor 2-8 million years ago (Mya)
              • c. 2 Mya, per mitochondrial DNA evidence (George et al. 1993)
              • c. 7-8 Mya, per fossil evidence (Cooke 1972 as cited in Brown & Houlden 2000; George et al. 1993

Cultural History

Popular cultural resources

  • Documentary appearances
    • My Wild Affair: The Rhino Who Joined the Family - 2014, PBS.
      • Rescued from flooding caused by the damming of the Zambezi River, Rupert, an orphaned black rhinoceros, was brought up in the suburban family home of wildlife vet Dr. John Condy. Rupert captured the hearts of the vet’s four young children before his eventual release into the wild. Fifty years later, the children are searching for clues to their childhood friend’s fate.
    • Flight of the Rhino - 2013, BBC; Daring plan to save the rhino population by moving them to a secret location.
      • Watch episode 10 as black rhinos are transported by dangling underneath a helicopter to a safer environment away from poachers.
    • Africa - 2013; BBC; Sir David Attenborough narrates this 6 episode arc.
      • Episodes, The Greatest Show on Earth, Kalahari, and The Future, take a look at black rhinos.
    • There's a Rhino In My House - 2011, Discovery/Animal Planet; Conservationists John and Judy Travers take on a baby black rhino after his mom is killed by poachers. John and Judy's game park consists of 11,000 acres.
    • Rhinoceros - 2007, PBS; with wildlife filmmaker Nigel Marven.
      • Watch five species of rhino on season 25 of Nature as they strive toward survival, with help from such breeding programs at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical gardens.
    • Black Rhino- National Geographic; a Black Rhino arrives at a wildlife conservation center to help give its species a much needed boost.
      • 3:07 clip

  • Children's Books
    • Rhino Rescue: Changing the Future for Endangered Wildlife - Garry Hamilton, 2006
      • Ages 10-13 will enjoy this nonfiction book on white and black rhinoceroses.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Perissodactyla

Suborder: Ceratomorpha (rhinos and tapirs)

Family: Rhinocerotidae

Genus: Diceros

Species: Diceros bicornis (Linnaeus, 1758) - black rhinoceros

D. b. bicornis - southwestern black rhino
D. b. michaeli - eastern black rhino
D. b. minor  - south central black rhino
D. b. longipes - western (declared extinct in 2011)

Source for subspecies nomenclature from IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group (see Emslie and Brooks, 1999).

Black Rhino

Drawing of a black rhino

Wild beasts and their ways. London, Macmillan and Co., 1890.

Image credit: © Biodiversity Heritage Library Flickr. 
Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Amato et al. (1993)
Brown & Houlden (2000)
Cooke (1972)
du Toit (1987)
Emslie (2012)
Emslie & Brooks (1999)
George et al. (1993)
Gotch (1995)
IRF (2002)
Kuzmin (2009)
Prothero (1993)
Prothero et al. (1986)
Steiner & Ryder (2011)
Rookmaaker (1995)

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