In A Nutshell
What’s the difference between black and white rhinos? While they are distinct species, it’s not the color that sets them apart. They’re all found in Eastern and Southern Africa and are all some shade of gray. An English corruption of the Afrikaans word for “wide” may have caused one rhino to be dubbed “white,” with “black” used simply to differentiate the two species, but the origins of the terms are not historically agreed upon.
The Whole Bushel
Rhinos come in shades of gray, and the white rhinoceros is no exception. On average, white rhinos aren’t any lighter than their Indian, Javan, or Sumatran counterparts—and black rhinos aren’t any darker either.
Both black and white rhinoceroses are found in sub-Saharan Africa. The black rhino is smaller and more aggressive, with a small, hook-shaped mouth designed for feeding on shrubbery. It is also quite solitary, unlike the white rhino, which may move in groups of as many as 15. Additionally, the white rhino is equipped with a broad, flat mouth designed for grazing on grasses.
And that’s the cornerstone of the most common explanation for the “white” misnomer: English explorers may have misheard the Afrikaans term “wijde”—meaning “wide,” in reference to the mouth—as “white.” The mistake birthed the “white rhinoceros,” with the term “black rhinoceros” being used to differentiate the two species (and further propagate the error).
While this explanation is quite common, there’s actually little to no historical documentation correlating “wijde” with the white rhino. The species was officially discovered by the Western world in 1812 by William John Burchell. As a result, the first common names of the animal were “Burchell’s rhinoceros” and “flat-nosed rhinoceros.” Sharp-eyed readers will notice that neither of those names sounds like much like a color.
But as early as 1798, Westerners were also using the name “white rhinoceros” in reference to the animal, for no clear reason. Hunter John Barrow wrote in 1801 that a local chief had referred to the creature as “white.”
So while the Afrikaans-English mix-up is plausible, alternative explanations persist. Perhaps the white and black nomenclatures were in reference to race, since the white rhino was seen by locals as more cowardly, like the white man. Or maybe explorers and locals actually had the impression that the white rhino really was paler than its smaller cousin. The white rhino may have been observed in brighter areas, with a hide covered in bird feces or light-colored dried mud.
Whatever the true explanation, this much is known: White rhinos aren’t exactly white, and black rhinos aren’t particularly black. They’re the same color, with physical disparities being their primary differences.