Dr Johan answers your questions!
What type of animals do you most often come across and work with?
There are two species of rhino that we mainly work with, the black rhino and the white rhino.
What adaptive traits do these animals have?
There are many physical and behavioural adaptive trait differences between the two species we work with such. This includes physical, sensory as well as dietary adaptations. A major difference between the two species is the adaptation of their mouths.
The black rhino has a specially adapted prehensile pointy lip that is used for browsing. They also have no large hump on the back of their neck. This allows them to lift their heads high up to reach leaves up in trees. Contrastingly, the white rhino has a wide flat mouth that is perfect for grazing.
The white rhino however has a thick hump on the back of their necks. This prevents them from lifting their heads high as a black rhino. This is useful for absorbing massive blows during fights.
The difference in mouth adaptation and therefore dietary differences leads to a difference in habitats. This further leads to other physical adaptations (e.g. the lack of a neck hump in the black rhino) necessary to survive in their respective habitats.
How do these animals use their adaptive traits within their ecological niche? How does this increase their chances of survival?
Black rhino with their prehensile lips are able to browse from trees and bushes as well as graze grass. This makes living in thick bushy areas perfect for them. However thick bush environments have their challenges. One challenge is that sounds are dampened by the surrounding vegetation. Black rhino have adapted to this by having much larger, wider and rounder ears than their white rhino counterparts. The larger round ears help to catch and funnel any sounds nearby. This alerts the generally more aggressive and defensive black rhino of any dangers that they may not see beyond the thick foliage.
Contrary to the black rhino, the white rhino have smaller and narrower tube-like ears and tend to be more placid than aggressive. This is due to their open savanna habitat where sounds travel from far and are easily heard. Therefore much less chance of being surprised out in the open and less need to be aggressive but rather more relaxed.
Should any rhino become threatened or under attack, its strong and sharp horns are used as a defence mechanism. They use these for fighting off predators and other rhinos who challenge for territory. Their thick skulls and muscular bodies are well adapted to endure heavy blows from its opponents, thus increasing its chance of survival.
Which adaptive trait is the most beneficial and vital for each specimen?
Rhino are incredible and ancient specimens, having developed over millions of years. They have changed their traits over the eras in order to adapt and survive. One example was growing thick hair during the ice ages. Every trait in these specimens works together to make it one of the most powerful and successful mammals.
Certainly without its mouth, it won’t be able to eat and therefore survive. However, without its sense of smell it would not be able to find water which is also necessary for survival. Having a thick skin and a sharp long horns to protect itself and its offspring is also vital for their survival.
As wildlife caretakers and vets, we need to look at the animal as a whole and appreciation that one small factor can influence the whole bodily system. Every part of the rhino is vital.
Do biotic or abiotic factors have a bigger impact on determining which adaptive traits develop?
At this day and age, with human interference and subsequent results of humans, there are major and catastrophic impacts on the changes in adaptation. This is not only in the rhino species, but in their predators behaviours as well. With habitat loss and poaching on the rise, these animals are put under extreme stress. The predators however are benefiting as a result of rhino poaching. In recent years, it has been noted that predators such as lions, hyena, and leopard have changed their behaviour drastically.
Previously, when a gunshot was heard in the bush, most animals would flee. However, since the pandemic of rhino poaching, predators have learned that the sound of a gunshot indicates an easy meal. This will be as the carcass of a poached rhino, or the defenceless young calf whose mother had been poached.
Rhino orphanages and sanctuaries have noted a marked increase in rescued orphans arriving with predator-inflicted wounds. This includes scratches from claws, bite wounds and loss of body parts such as ears and tails. With the rhino poaching crisis escalating so quickly, the rhinos do not have the time to develop defensive traits in order to adapt to the situation.
Which animal has the best and worst fitness and why?
Both black rhinos and white rhino have their strengths and would be better than the other depending on which aspects of fitness you are considering. Black rhino are able to run much faster (up to 55km/h) than the white rhino counterpart, but only for short distances. The white rhino, although relatively slower (between 40-50km/h), can run for a longer time or distance.
What is the main mechanism behind the genetic variation within the population of the species, gene flow, genetic drift, natural selection or mutations?
With the numbers of rhino declining rapidly, the opportunity for any of the above to take place is incredibly difficult to succeed. Fragmented populations throughout the country within both private and public sectors does not allow for natural, free movement of rhino which would result in natural gene flow. Low sub-population number and the rapid decline in numbers due to poaching hampers any progress towards natural mutations, genetic variations and genetic drift occurring. The only solution for this problem would likely be the exchange of specimens for breeding programs between the various rhino custodians. This would increase the genetic variation and diversity of the meta population of rhinos.
Have you witnessed any evolutionary changes within one of these species?
Not in our lifetime. Rhino have been out of the spotlight and not studied until the poaching crisis hit. Now that these species are being closely guarded, treated, carcasses found, we are only now able to intensively study them.
Very little information is available regarding the rhino species, scientific or otherwise. Sanctuaries are working closely with veterinarians and researches to collect various data. This is from behavioural studies, to medical treatments that work and don’t work. We are also monitoring growth and development of orphaned rhino, along with their physiological changes. The individual differences between rhinos is also being studied. This is all linking back to any historical data related to the animal such as location, season, age, injury and time elapsed between the death of the mother to the rescue of the orphan. We are quickly learning vital information on these rhino and how to save them. However, funding and time is a huge constraint to saving these rhino.
What are the biggest factors that lead to these evolutions or changes within the species, climate change, humans, parasites, sickness, etc.?
The biggest factor influencing the changes in the rhino species is the human impact, both positive and negative.
Poaching and habitat loss are causing losses of the species at a disturbing rate. With smaller habitat areas, rhinos are unable to move when seasons change and their bodies are under constant stress. This lack of large habitats and added stress is causing an increase of previously rare diseases which have been fatal to rhino. Fortunately with rhinos now being closely monitored and researched, treatments for the “new” rare diseases are able to be given effectively and thus saving the lives of rhino.
Orphaned or injured rhinos that have undergone trauma and many resultant treatments have a weakened immune system. This also influences their chances of survival or contribution to the next generation. Securing land and protecting these zones with Anti-Poaching Units are imperative for the future of the rhino species.
What do you believe will be the biggest hurdle these species will have to overcome in order to continue to survive in the wild in the future?
Poaching is the biggest hurdle currently facing the rhino species. Rhinos need the intervention of good people, including caretakers, veterinarians, helicopter pilots, medical support, funding and financial support and many more. Anti-Poaching efforts and the evolution of technology to prevent and detect poachers before the rhinos become targets is essential. This involves the use of technologies to track and monitor existing protected rhinos. Through education and word of mouth, and simply willingness to help save the rhinos and save the survivors of poaching we will help the rhino thrive. Every dollar, every donation can and does help the rhinos overcome this massive hurdle that they are facing.
What is your favourite personal experience in which you have seen one of the animals use their adaptive traits to their advantage?
Their wound healing ability and willingness to survive and overcome their injuries and trauma are unprecedented.
Want to support Saving The Survivors work and protect the Rhino?
You can donate on our website now! Please consider becoming a monthly donor to show your continued support in fighting for the future of Rhinos!
MORE BUSH JOURNAL
Rhino with damaged horn from a fight
A Bold Mission to Save a Black Rhino Bull: Dr. Johan Marais at Work In the heart of the African wilderness, a remarkable story of resilience and compassion unfolds. At STS our commitment to protecting and preserving wildlife knows no bounds. Today, we share with you an extraordinary mission led by our founder and head … Continued
Rhino suffering osteoarthritis
In the above image, you can witness a defining moment in the life of a magnificent Rhino suffering from osteoarthritis. What sets this scene apart is that Dr. Johan Marais and our team are applying the same approach and medications that have proven successful in treating horses. It’s a prime example of how we adapt … Continued
Seha's Great Relocation
A Journey of Hope and Healing In a world where stories of hope often shine through the darkest of times, the tale of Seha, our Southern White Rhino Bull, is nothing short of remarkable. This is a story of resilience, compassion, and the relentless dedication of a community determined to protect and rehabilitate endangered wildlife. … Continued
Treating a Rhino with infected horns
A Miracle in the Wild: Dr. Johan’s Life-Saving Mission for a Black Rhino Cow We are thrilled to share an incredible story of hope and resilience that unfolded in the heart of the wilderness. At Saving the Survivors, we are committed to protecting and preserving the world’s most vulnerable wildlife, and this recent mission highlights … Continued
The dark side of the super moon
Unveiling the Super Moon: A Celestial Marvel with Consequences for Wildlife Prepare to be captivated by an extraordinary cosmic display in the coming nights – the enchanting “super moon.” This celestial event promises a visual spectacle like no other, but as we marvel at its magnificence, it’s crucial to shed light on the potential challenges … Continued
Impi's Journey to Recovery
In the heart of the wild, where stories of survival and courage unfold, a young Southern White Rhino named Impi has captured our hearts and reminded us of the unbreakable spirit of wildlife. Impi’s tale is one of triumph over adversity, of a mother’s unwavering love, and of the collective efforts of dedicated individuals striving … Continued
Update on our anti poaching dog “Hope” We are thrilled to unveil the extraordinary journey of our anti-poaching marvel, Hope, and her devoted handler. Through your unwavering support and generous contributions this remarkable tale of dedication and protection is made possible. We cannot thank you enough for being the backbone of Hope’s mission. Join us … Continued
The value of a Rhino
Will a Rhino Ever Be Worth More Than Its Horn on the Black Market? In the intricate tapestry of wildlife conservation, one of the most poignant challenges we face is the preservation of Rhinos, these majestic beings that have graced our planet for over 50 million years. The question looms large: will the value of … Continued
Saving Private Rhino
A Bright Future for Private Rhino Custodians in South Africa: Potential Tax Incentives In a promising turn of events for South Africa’s dedicated private Rhino owners, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy has hinted at the possibility of introducing tax incentives. These incentives could provide much-needed relief to individuals who have been at the forefront of protecting … Continued
WORLD LION DAY 2023
Greetings to all Lion enthusiasts on this World Lion Day! As we gather to honour these awe-inspiring creatures, we’re reminded of the remarkable initiatives we’ve undertaken to safeguard and conserve these iconic animals, all made possible through your generous support. With the help of your contributions, our dedicated team stands ready to rescue injured … Continued
Runners brave the cold for STS!
What an exhausting weekend! STS Veterinary Assistant “Dot” and her trusty sidekick “Romeo the Rhino” joined forces with 580 brave runners, defying the chilly weather, for the exhilarating 3rd race of the Cradle Cracker series. The Cradle Cracker series from WannaDo Events is a thrilling 4-part race series set in the heart of South Africa’s … Continued
World Ranger Day 2023
While they watch over our wildlife, we’ve got their backs. Thanks to your donations, so far this year STS has supported our brave Rangers with tents, boots, night vision goggles, first aid and medical equipment and not to mention the Anti Poaching dog “Hope” and the training of her handler, along with many other items … Continued