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White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Active both day and night

  • General activity pattern
    • Most active in early morning and late afternoon
      • Frequently feed at these times
    • Least active at mid-day
      • Commonly at rest
    • At night
      • Alternate time between eating and resting

Rest and wallowing

  • Rest and sleep
    • Periods of rest
      • At night
      • Mid-day or the hottest part of the day
      • Interspersed between prolonged periods of feeding
    • Duration of resting periods
      • Varies seasonally and with weather patterns
        • Impacted by temperature and cloud cover
      • Average of 1.5 to 3 hours
      • Sleep periods can last as long as 10 hours
    • Location of resting spots
      • Daytime resting spots
        • Bare ground, in the shade
        • Several individuals will commonly use a spot when grazing in the same area
      • Not observed to lie downwind, as in black rhinos
    • Body position at rest
      • Usually rest lying down, as opposed to standing
  • Wallow in shallow water and mud
    • Most common October - March (hottest time of the year) at midday
    • Dust wallowing (as seen in the black rhino) not observed in white rhinos (Owen-Smith 1973)
    • Function of wallowing
      • Probably serves as thermoregulation and protection from ectoparasites
      • Protects against ectoparasites
        • Rubbing various body parts on stumps, boulders, and bushes is commonly observed afterward wallowing


  • Move along established trails
    • Travel up to 5 km (3.1 mi) to access water
    • Travel less commonly to access resting areas
  • Scent probably used to mark and follow trails
    • Hold head down close to ground while walking

Territory/Home Range

Range size

  • Females
    • Core area, where most time is spent
      • 3 - 9 km2 (1.2-3.9 mi2)
    • Full home range
      • Up to 21 km2 (8.1 mi2) in South Africa; 69 km2 (26.6 mi2) in Zimbabwe
  • Males
    • Core area
      • 0.75 - 4.2 km2 (0.3-1.6 mi2)
    • Full home range
      • Up to 14 km2 (5.4 mi2) in South Africa; 50 km2 (19.3 mi2) in Zimbabwe
  • Factors affecting range size
    • Season
      • At the height of the dry season, water dries up and rhinos must travel daily to more permanent water sources
    • Population density impacts size
      • High population density tends to result in increased range sizes


  • Male-female ranges commonly overlap
    • Ranges of adult males do not typically overlap with one another
  • Females do not defend territories
  • Males highly territorial
    • Unlike the less territorial nature of most black rhinos
    • Borders are marked with urine
    • Some non-territorial males inhabit ranges of territorial ones
  • Water holes often located at boundary of several territories
    • Like pie slices (Owen-Smith, 1973)
    • sometimes a territorial male travels outside the territory along shared trails to water. In Krueger Natl Park, males had to cross others' territories to get to water in the dry season (Pienaar, 1995), which led to more territorial aggression

Social Groups


  • Social structure
    • The following stable (> 1 month) groupings have been observed
      • Female with calf
      • Female with unrelated adolescents
      • Groups of adolescents
      • Solitary males; occasionally pair up with adult females, but usually only lasts a day (subordinate males) or 2-3 weeks (dominant males).
    • Sometimes groups coalesce while foraging or resting


  • Generally less aggressive and temperamental than the black rhinoceros
  • Males non-aggressive toward females, most often
    • More hostile when a female is in estrus
      • May attempt to prevent her from leaving his territory


  • Participants
    • Usually, only young calves play by themselves
      • Mother often nearby
  • Forms of play
    • Solitary play
      • Prance in circles
      • Run back and forth
    • Group play
      • Gentle horn jousting
        • Usually between juveniles and adolescents; also with other age classes of both sexes


Visual Signs and Displays

  • Confrontational signals
    • Horn prodding, rubbing, and clashing
      • Usually used in the context of confrontation with another individual
    • Charge to intimidate
      • Performed by one territorial male towards another


  • Snort
    • Signals "keep away"
    • Used by all except territorial males
  • Snarl
    • A "gruff, vocal roar"
    • Signals "keep away"; a stronger message than the snort
  • Pant
    • A message to restore contact between individuals
    • Given by mother and young, or male and female adults
  • Hic
    • A "repetitive, wheezy, exhalations, with a throb produced at the initiation of each inhalation"
    • Given by a male to announce approach to a receptive female
  • Squeal
    • Territorial, courtship signal
      • Given by a male to stop a female from leaving his territory
      • Produced at a territorial boundary
  • Shriek
    • Signals fear
    • Given by one territorial male toward another; to keep him from attacking
  • Whine
    • Distress call
    • A "thin mewing tone"
    • Given by calves
  • Gasp-Puff
    • Signals sudden fright

Olfaction/Scent Marking

  • Defecation
    • Dung piles ('lavatories')
      • Large communal defecation sites
        • Continually used by rhinos
      • Action of defecation or the encounter of a dung pile may stimulate others to add to the pile
    • Territorial males
      • Defecate and scrape the dung pile vigorously with hind legs; scattering dung
    • Females, young, and non-territorial males
      • Scrape gently or not at all
      • Unlike black rhino females which scrape more frequently
  • Urination
    • Non-ritualized by most individuals
      • All but territorial males
        • Unlike behavioral pattern of black rhinos with both sexes performing ritualized urination
      • Description of urination
        • Steady stream of urine shooting outward, horizontal to the ground
    • Ritualized urination
      • Performed by territorial males
      • Description of behavior
        • Horn-rubbing and leg scraping, followed by short bursts of urine sprayed backward
        • Behavior often repeated as a male travels through his territory (territorial marking)


Fairly sedentary

  • Do not disperse rapidly
  • Walking speed
    • 3.0-3.8 km/hr (1.9-2.4 mi/hr), when moving toward a water-hole)
  • Trotting speed
    • 29 km/hr (18 mi/hr), to escape a threat
    • May be maintained for several km
  • Galloping speed
    • Charge up to 40 km/hr (24.8 mi/hr), by adult males when provoked
    • Sustained for short distances

Interspecies Interactions

Symbiotic interactions

  • Mutualistic relationships
    •  Oxpecker, Pied Crow, Fork-tailed Drongo, Glossy Starling, and Cattle Egret often associated with rhinos
      • Red-billed Oxpecker
        • Bird climbs on rhinos (even into ears and nostrils) and plucks off insects
        • Will follow rhinos for long distances
        • Also serves as alarm when danger approaches (very high pitched alarm call)
      • Fork-tailed drongo
        • Bird sits on branches near rhino, swoops in and out (much like flycatchers) eating insects that are attracted to it
        • Does not follow rhino outside its own home range
      • Cattle egret
        • Bird eats the insects stirred up by rhino as it walks; often sits on its back, but rarely picks off ectoparasites
  • Potential competitors
    • May compete with other grazers
      • E.g. wildebeest, warthog, zebra, and buffalo


a white rhino in a water hole

Mud or shallow water provide rhinos with relief against the heat. Individuals can often be seen in cooling themselves during the hottest parts of the day.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Owen-Smith (1973)
Pienaar (1995)
Rachlow et al. (1999)

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