Biologists think that rhinos return to the same communal spot to poo each day is because the scent from the dung of other rhinos provides them with important information. Here chemical clues in white rhino feces contain a range of data, relating to age, sex, general health, and reproductive status.
Explaining this to National Geographic, lead researcher Courtney Marneweck, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said: “We think of dung as just a waste product, but it’s really a good way for animals to communicate. There’s a lot of information there that we haven’t taken advantage of.”
White rhinoceroses are the largest species of rhinos. There are two subspecies of white rhino; the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) and the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). They are characterized by a massive body and large head, a short neck and broad chest. A rhino weighs slightly more than a hippopotamus.
For the study, Marneweck and his team followed over 200 individual white rhinos in South Africa, across several different populations. From the communal areas, samples of feces were taken. It was noted which individual animal produced which feces sample. The feces is primarily composed of desiccated grass. Taking the samples back to a laboratory, the feces was analyzed for its chemical composition. It was discovered that the feces of various ages and sexes—held differing chemical cues.
To test out their theory about different responses to the feces, the researchers created artificial feces and put the dung back into the communal area. They then studied the different reactions of the returning rhinos. The study included fake dung designed to signal to a male that a female was ready to mate. This led to the males starting to search for the females.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B (“Dung odours signal sex, age, territorial and oestrous state in white rhinos.”)