If you’re a unicorn fan and you spend much time online, you may have come across this idea, and perhaps thought it was a pretty odd one! It seems to be increasingly common to claim rhinos are chubby unicorns, but where has the idea come from and why? The two creatures don’t seem remotely related, apart from the fact that they do share the single horn on their foreheads – or at least many do, as some rhinos have two horns.

Joke in Internet: Are rhinos just fat unicorns?
The question has been raised: Are rhinos just fat unicorns? Screenshot. Picture source.

You might be surprised to learn that unicorns and rhinos actually have a lot in common! And this isn’t about unicorns that have snacked too often on rainbows and grown beyond their normal size. Rhinos may actually have been the origins of unicorns.

These two creatures do seem like a bizarre mix, and yet it seems that we love mixing unicorns with their apparent opposites. Unicorns farting rainbows, for example, is an immensely popular idea, and yet hardly fits with the majestic, noble equine we generally imagine. Rhinos are certainly incredible creatures, but they seem a polar opposite of today’s slight, swift unicorns.

Internet Joke – rhino as chubby unicorn

A running joke on the internet asks whether rhinos are just fat unicorns. This joke suggests that the fashion industry created an “impossible” body image and targets young rhinos to make them self-conscious, according to Reddit. While this pokes fun at the fashion industry, it also shows that people feel there is a very valid connection between the great, hulking rhinos and the slender, elegant unicorns.

Unicorns are real, just fat, grey and we call them Rhinos

This joke has led to all sorts of ideas and merchandise. A quick glance at a search for rhinos being fat unicorns on a site like Etsywill show just how widespread the image has become, and the different meanings it has taken on. The idea that rhinos are unicorns in a plumper form is obviously pretty popular, perhaps as a means of exploring body-acceptance and positivity. It seems unicorns help out with many amazing causes, and this is just one magical influence they have had on our world.

The Very Beginning

There is a lot of speculation about where the myth of unicorns came from, and it’s possible that it had many different origins as so many different cultures seem to have independently created a unicorn of some sort or another.

However, despite the differences between rhinos and today’s graceful and delicate unicorn, remember that the image of the unicorn has changed a lot throughout history. Today’s rhino may not look very much like we think unicorns should appear, but medieval depictions of unicorns often showed them as mighty and terrifying, possessing great strength and stature. 

Meet the potential forebear to the modern unicorn- Elasmotherium aslo known as the Siberian Unicorn.
Picture source. Licence. Author: Maxx9035

The rhino seems an easy choice for an immensely powerful, one-horned creature. As stated by TheEquinest, Elasmotherium is a potential forebear to the modern unicorn. Also known as the Siberian Unicorn, it was a giant, shaggy rhino that was believed to live in prehistoric times.

While most depictions of unicorns do portray them as equines, it’s possible that the reason these creatures were so powerful is because they were originally based on rhinos – and nobody argues with a rhino’s strength. 

The conversion into horse-like creatures may have resulted from poor communication, or the fact that those describing “unicorns” would have been familiar with horses, but not rhinos. Alternatively, perhaps people combined the best traits of the two animals – power, strength, and the unusual horn from rhinos, and speed, grace, and nimbleness from horses.

Marco Polo’s Unicorn

The famous Italian explorer, Marco Polo, claimed to have seen a unicorn when he was traveling in Asia. Many of the native Asian creatures would have been unfamiliar to the explorer, and when he came across what we believe to have actually been rhinos, he called them unicorns, according to Reference.

Marco Polo's adventure. He claimed to have seen a unicorn.
Marco Polo. His travels and adventures 1880. Picture source. Wikimedia. Author/Licence: Internet archive.

It seems that the legend of unicorns owes a lot to travelers in unfamiliar lands. Many people believed unicorns were real creatures from far off places, so it’s not really surprising that when they were given accounts of such creatures existing, they believed it. Equally, it’s not surprising that when faced with strange and wonderful beasts, Marco Polo attempted to explain and understand them using mythological creatures he was familiar with – like unicorns.

Of course, it’s possible that Marco Polo really did see a unicorn wandering through Asia; it’s a magical country, and perhaps unicorns were less shy in those times. If so, he is owed a major apology by the world, as this mistake is among the most famous of his career!

Misuse Of The Horns

The rhino has probably suffered somewhat thanks to its connection with unicorns. Unicorn horns were believed to be incredibly powerful. Most cultures believed they would cure or guard against poisons, that they brought good fortune, and that they would heal injuries and possibly even grant immortality. UnicornsRule also mentions that a few legends suggested unicorn horns could bestow the power of flight. You can also have a look and get to know more about unicorn horn powers in my previous article “What does a unicorn horn look like?”

Rhino in the field. Because of their horns, rhinos are in great danger.
Pachyderm Rhinoceros Safari Rhino Grass Steppe – they are in great danger. Picture source.

Such amazingly powerful items were obviously in high demand, and traders would sell fake horns to rich nobles for vast sums of money. While narwhal horns are known to have been the popular choice for this sort of trade, it’s likely that rhino horns were also used if traders could get them, and these beautiful giants suffered as a result of their unique horns.

To Summarize

Whether rhinos are just fat unicorns or not could be debated eternally. The origins of unicorns are so shrouded in the mists of time that it’s very hard to say where they evolved from, or whether they had different evolutions in different countries.

One thing that does seem important is that while unicorns walk on the fringes of the imagination, rhinos are very real, very present, and worryingly endangered. If their association with unicorns raises their profile and encourages people to help conserve them, unicorns have laid another blessing on our world and prevented their lookalikes from going the same way as the Siberian Unicorn.

Young rhino learning to stand and be unicorn that still excist.
Rhino Zoo Young Mammal Zurich. Rhinos actually have a lot in common with unicorns. Picture source.

What is certain is that rhinos and unicorns share a surprising number of characteristics, and combining the two lends a certain comic twist to an otherwise serious creature. Many people seem to love the idea of plump unicorns, juxtaposing the grace and elegance with which they are usually portrayed with a characteristic often seen as clumsy.