Way back when, Maryland had real rhinos

August 11, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

You can call them fat. You can call them ponderous. But just don't call them out-of-towners.

The truth of the matter is that rhinoceroses are as native to Maryland as a blue crab or beehive hairdo.

"They were once the most common of the large mammals in North America. This probably was one, if not the, center of evolution for them. There almost definitely would have been rhinos in Maryland," said Dr. Thomas Foose, program director for the International Rhino Foundation in Columbus, Ohio.

OK, that was 5 million years ago. But the animal probably began here, migrated to its current habitats in Africa and Asia, and, for reasons that still puzzle scientists, became extinct in North America, Dr. Foose said.

Scientists such as Dr. Foose hope to retrace those evolutionary steps by breeding the animals in American zoos and reintroducing them into Asia and Africa, where their numbers have dwindled dangerously low.

With only 12,000 in existence, 1,000 in captivity, the rhino is one of the world's most endangered animals.

Having a major sports league use the name may draw attention to their plight, said Dr. Foose, a native of Southern Pennsylvania who grew up a Baltimore Colts fan.

"I'm surprised and pleased that one of the teams would use it. I think it's a natural, and I'm amazed that no one has used it," he said.

Other rhino facts from Dr. Foose:

* Rhinos are not dumb, although they aren't as bright as, say, horses or pigs. Some have been trained to perform in circuses, and centuries ago they were briefly used in cavalry by military leaders of India.

* The animals have an undeserved reputation for nastiness. It varies by species, but some can be quite pleasant, as long as you don't get between them and their young.

* There are five varieties: the Sumatran, Indian, black, white and Javan. In the wild, they are found only in Africa and Asia. Some have two horns, others one.

* They have generally poor eyesight, but good hearing and sense of smell, suited to their vegetarian diets.

* True to their brooding image, most rhinos are solitary. But the white rhino will congregate in family groupings of five or six animals.

* A rhino bears its young live after a 16-month gestation. The young grow to maturity in about 7 years and can live 40 years or more.

* One of the animal kingdom's tougher customers, a healthy rhino can fend off tigers and just about any other predator except armed men. They are extensively poached for their horns, which are used in some cultures for an aphrodisiac.

* Although they resemble dinosaurs, rhinos actually are related to the horse.

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