CO-OPERATIVE rhinos from Colchester Zoo have been helping top-level scientific research.

A team from the Royal Veterinary College has been investigating how a two-tonne rhino gets about on such tiny feet.

And the rhinos in Colchester have been instrumental in the collection of vital data.

As part of their research, rhinos at the zoo were trained to walk across a hi-tech mat which was packed with sensors.

These allowed researchers to measure the pressure and forces in the rhinos’ feet, to reveal how the weight is distributed.

Prof John Hutchinson, from the college’s structure and motion laboratory, said: “There is a little bit known about the anatomy of rhinos and their health, but nothing is known about the mechanics of their feet – the physics, the physiology, the detailed anatomy or the behaviour of how they use their feet.”

That is where Cynthia, Zamba, Emily, Otto and Flossie came in.

Sarah Forsyth, curator at Colchester Zoo, said the rhinos had already been trained to target – a technique through which they are taught to walk towards a ball on the end of a stick in return for a reward.

So, with a bit of fine tuning, they were able to walk across the pressure mat.

Miss Forsyth said: “We have training programmes for a lot of the animals in the zoo.

“It helps us when we are trying to carry out medical procedures without having to sedate them.

“The mandrills will open their mouths so we can check their teeth, and we can listen to the heartbeat of the leopard without putting it under. It makes life easier for them and for us.”

The rhinos learnt when they touched the ball with their horn, a whistle blew and they were given a reward in the form of a healthy carrot or apple.

Miss Forsyth said: “They found the mat a little scary at first, but got used to it.”

The biggest challenge for the keepers was keeping the rhinos interested.

“They did get a bit bored sometimes,” said Miss Forsyth, “and could get distracted.”

Prof Hutchinson added: “Sometimes Emily got a bit frisky and got distracted by the male, Otto.”

But he was full of praise for the zoo.

“Colchester is one of the few places in the world where we can work with rhinos which are trained,” he said.

“Zamba was a delight. We worked with him from practically when he was born. He was mischievous and absolutely adorable.”

The research has allowed scientists to identify the similarities and differences between rhinos and elephants.

The rhinos could also offer some inspiration in other ways, such as building equipment which can handle heavy loads.