Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature


  • Common name
    • White rhinoceros (Rookmaaker 2003)
      • First published use in 1801
      • Came into common use in 1838
      • Etymology
        • Unclear why a gray-skinned rhinoceros would be called white
          • Common (but unlikely) explanation
            • "White" may be a corruption of an Afrikaans word derived from the Dutch "wijd" (also spelled as weit, weid, wyd, or wyt) and meaning "wide" or "large," however, there is no record of such a word being used with a word meaning rhinoceros
          • Other theories
            • The first white rhinos described may have appeared whitish due to wallowing in calcareous soil or being covered with cattle egret droppings
            • Hunters claim that white rhino horns are lighter in color than those of black rhinos
    • Other common names
      • Square-lipped rhino
      • Rhinoceros blanc (French)
      • Witrenoster (German)
      • Kiaru ya majani (Swahili)
  • Scientific name
    • Etymology
      • Genus Ceratotherium
        • From two Greek words keras meaning "a horn" and therion meaning "a beast or wild animal" (Brown 1956; Gotch 1995)
      • Specific epithet simium (from Gotch 1995)
        • From the Latin word simum meaning "snub-nosed or flat-nosed"
          • Name refers to the animal's flat broad lip adapted for grazing
    • Synonyms (from ITIS 2015)
      • Rhinoceros burchellii
      • Rhinoceros camus
      • Rhinoceros simus


  • Differentiation from black rhinos
    • Estimates range of mitochondrial DNA divergence c. 4.5-14% (Brown & Houlden 2000; George et al. 1993)
  • White rhino subspecific differentiation
    • c. 1.4% difference in mitochondiral DNA, according to one study (George et al. 1993)
    • Recent research suggests that northern white rhinos should be considered a separate species from southern white rhinos (Groves et al. 2010)


Closest living relative

  • Tapiridae
    • The tapirs

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

  • Perissodactyls
    • Commonly known as odd-toed hoofed mammals
    • Fossil record
      • First appear c. 58 million years ago (upper Paleocene)
  • Earliest known rhinoceros-like mammal
    • Hyrachyus eximus (Prothero et al. 1986)
      • Hornless
      • c. size of a large dog, with hooves and herbivorous teeth
      • Lived in Wyoming, Europe, Canadian Arctic, and possibly Asia during middle Eocene
  • Rhinoceros evolution and diversification
    • Three families evolved in late Eocene
      • Hyracodontidae - running rhinos
      • Amynodontidae - aquatic rhinos
      • Rhinocerotidae - ancestors of modern rhinos
  • Modern rhinoceros evolution and diversification
    • 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)
    • 5 modern species of rhinoceroses evolved over 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: Indian rhino with single horn
      • Sumatran rhinoceroses appeared around 25 million years ago (late Oligocene)
      • African rhinoceroses appeared around 17 million years ago (early Miocene)
        • Black and white rhinoceroses subsequently diverged from a common ancestor
          • About 2 million years ago per mitochondrial DNA evidence (George et al. 1993)
          • About 7-8 million years ago per fossil evidence (Cooke 1972 as cited in Brown & Houlden 2000; George et al. 1993)

Cultural History

Popular cultural resources

  • Documentary appearances
    •  Last Chance to See: Northern White Rhino - 2009, BBC; Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine set out to find if there are any Northern White Rhinos in the wild
      • Series 1, episode 2 of 6
    • Secrets of our Living Planet - 2012,  BBC/Nature Wildlife
      • Episode 2, The Secret of the Savannah, features the white rhinos of Kenya.
  • Research Memoirs
    • The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World's Greatest Creatures - Lawrence Anthony, with Graham Spence, 2012
      • A recount of attempts to save these remarkable animals. In the face of unmoving government bureaucracy, Anthony made a perilous journey deep into the jungle to try to find and convince them to help save the northern white rhino.
  • 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: Dicerorhinus (Sumatran rhino)
Genus: Rhinoceros (Javan and Indian rhino)
Genus: Diceros (black rhino)
Genus: Ceratotherium (white rhino)

Species: Ceratotherium simum

C. s. simum (southern white rhino)
C. s. cottoni (northern white rhino)

Early Rendering

a picture of a white rhino

Representation of the white rhinoceros in Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur.

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

Page Citations

Brown (1956)
Brown and Houlden (2000)
Cooke (1972)
Emslie (2012)
George et al. (1993)
Gotch (1995)
Groves et al. (2010)
IRF (2002)
ITIS (2015)
Kuzmin (2009)
O' Ryan and Harley (1993)
Rookmaaker (2003)
Steiner and Ryder (2011)

SDZWA Library Links