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Mythbusters Mailbag: Do rhinos make good fire fighters?
Question: "Do rhinos really stomp out fires when they come across them?"
There's a key funny scene in the popular 80s comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, where a couple cosies up by a campfire when - all of a sudden - a rhino comes charging in to stomp out the flames. (That scene - about 20 seconds in - unfolds here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SE1AEd2NqM)
One justification for this myth is that rhinos have such a highly evolved sense of smell that the scent of smoke and ashes irritates their olfactory sensory neurons, sending them into an angry fit - the rhino equivalent of a bull's red cloth pet-peeve. In a bid to eliminate the irritant, the rhino fervently stomps at the flames until there is nothing left.
But pop-cult references aside, there is nothing accurate about this purported rhino quirk. "This is very likely to be a misconception; certainly not a behaviour that I (or several other rhino keepers I've spoken to) have heard of," says Bev Carter, Animal Care Supervisor at the Toronto Zoo.
There are several reasons for this:
The first is that rhinos - like other animals - have an instinctive fight or flight response to any potentially dangerous situation, and fires certainly fall into this category.
"The fright and flight reaction that helps keep animals safe is very strong...I can't imagine that it could be sufficiently overcome to allow rhinos to 'firefight' by stomping on the flames," says Carter.
Another flaw in this assumption is that a rhinos' stomping would be an effective way to put out local fires.
"It is highly unlikely that any fire a rhino has access to would be small enough that stomping on it to put it out would be an option," says Carter.
"Certainly, the African species of rhino (white and black) would be facing brush fires that spread rapidly and which encompass large areas. I can't think of any animal that doesn't fear fire and that will not run from it," she adds.
The only aspects of the myth that are accurate is that rhinos have a sensitive snout (a trade-off for relatively poor sight), and that they stomp their feet.
"Rhinos will sometimes stomp, using their front feet, when nervous or upset. This behaviour will precede either a charge or the animal wheeling and running away from the situation, depending on whether the situation elicits a fight or flight response," says Carter.
Beyond that, next time you're behaving irresponsibly around a campfire in a Savannah, don't count on your friendly neighbourhood rhino to come put out the flames for you.
researched by Dragana Kovacevic