Image-based analyses from an online repository provide rich information on long-term changes in morphology and human perceptions of rhinos.
Online image repositories can offer a freely accessible, information-rich and cost-effective alternative to museum collections for studying long-term changes in human interactions with nature and ecological and evolutionary change. The Rhino Resource Center (RRC) is one example, curated by experts and holding a collection of >4000 rhino images, including both artistic portrayals (1481-2021) and photographs (taken between 1862-2021), and representing a potentially valuable case study to investigate the utility of online image repositories for research into large vertebrates and, potentially, other well-recorded smaller taxa. The five extant species of rhino are all threatened by habitat loss and human hunting and therefore are an important focus for conservation research. We used the RRC for two separate research approaches: (i) assessing the changing representations and human interactions with rhinos using 3158 images (1531 pieces of artwork and 1627 photographs); and (ii) determining to what extent morphological data can be extracted from photographs to assess changes in horn length over time, using a sample size of 80 photographs of rhinos taken in profile view. We found that African rhino species have become more commonly depicted in images, compared to Asian rhino species over time. During the age of European imperialism (between the 16th and 20th centuries), rhinos were commonly portrayed as hunting trophies, but since the mid-20th century, they have been increasingly portrayed in a conservation context, reflecting a change in emphasis from a more to less consumptive relationship between humans and rhinos. Finally, we found evidence for declining horn length over time across species, perhaps related to selective pressure of hunting, and indicating a utility for image-based approaches in understanding societal perceptions of large vertebrates and trait evolution.