Hyraxes seem to be quite average little critters, resembling an over-grown guinea-pig and famous almost solely for being the closest living relative to elephants. But when delving deeper into research, I uncovered an unforeseen conspiracy: these unassuming mammals are quite different from nearly any other animal on Earth. If not that, then they are quite similar to almost every other animal on Earth.
A hyrax does not give the impression of being a hodge-podge of parts; it seems typical, almost boring. These sub-ungulates look like a rabbit with rounded ears and no tail, and weigh from 5 to 9 pounds. They are about a foot high at the shoulder, and are typically grey. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. They are so unlike other animals that hyraxes have their own order: Hyracoidea, in which they are the only family: Procaviidae.
Hyraxes: Elephants’ Long-Lost Cousins
The hyrax is, as I mentioned above, the nearest living relative to an elephant. They share a remote ancestor, common to sea cows as well, which explain why all three show similarities in leg bones and teeth. Surprisingly, hyraxes have been compared to elephants as early as 1798, when scientists noted the similarities in their foot bones and skulls. They also have common gene sequences. In case you still aren’t sure, it has also been determined elephants and hyraxes share eye-lens proteins, and to top it off, hemoglobin in both animals have the same amino acid structures.
Elephants aren’t the only animals the hyrax has been compared to; blood serum studies seem to show a relation between them and aardvarks. Other than blood relation, they also share physical and behavioural characteristics from a wide range of animals. A hyrax’s brain is like an elephant’s, while its stomach is like a horse’s. The skeleton, however, is akin to a rhinoceros’s. The hind feet are entirely different from these animals, more like a tapir’s. Peeking into the mouth of a hyrax, you may recognize similar upper incisors from rodents’ teeth, upper cheek teeth from rhino’s and the lower cheek teeth like a hippo’s. They even have two teeth in their upper jaw that resemble elephant tusks. The overall anatomy of a hyrax, however, is like an elephant’s or horse’s.
Hyraxes can regularly be found stretched out on rocks, sun-bathing like lizards, or huddling together for warmth. This is due to their poorly developed internal temperature regulation. Because hyraxes spend so much of their time soaking up the sun, they are generally thought to be lazy. In fact, there is an African tale that says when the Lion was giving out tails to the animal kingdom, the hyrax was so slothful that he sent the monkey to deliver his tail to him. The monkey thought the hyrax’s tail would make a good addition to his own and promptly stole it after receiving it from the Lion. The hyrax, too lazy to fight with the monkey over it, has gone tailless even since.
But enough about what the hyrax is similar to. What is it?
The History of the Hyrax
Hyraxes were not always the approachable little animals they are today. Fossils have shown that they were once much, much larger. Some sources say the size of a small horse, while others indicate they were as large as hippos. In past 25 million years, however, little about the hyrax has changed.
The name “hyrax” is derived from the Greek word for shrew-mouse. When Early Phoenician navigators saw the rabbits of the Iberian Peninsula, they confused the rabbits found there with hyraxes, and named the newly-discovered place “land of the hyraxes”: I-Shapan-im, from the Hebrew word for hyraxes: Shaphan. This translated into the Latin word Hispania, then the Spanish name España and finally, the English name: Spain.
Hyrax references can also be found in the bible, though they are called a term usually used for rabbits
, since a specific word for these animals couldn’t be thought up.
Today, they are four species of hyrax recognized. The common one, with the most information available, is the Rock Hyrax, scientific name Procavia capensis. The second is a similar species, the Yellow-Spotted Hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei). Lastly, two species of Tree Hyrax: the Southern Tree Hyrax, (Dendrohyrax arboreus) and the Western Tree Hyrax, (Dendrohyrax dorsalis). All four species look mostly the same, but with slight differences.
They all have flexible spines. In fact, hyraxes have more vertebrae than any other mammal. Whether climbing up trees or skittering across rocks, a hyrax needs good traction. They achieve this with small ridges and microscopic sweat glands located on the soft, pliable bottoms of their feet. Hundreds of tiny muscles work in harmony to form a suction cup, perfect for gripping slippery rock.
Hyraxes have keen eyesight due to the original design of their eyeball. Over the pupil, the iris bulges, managing to deflect light away from directly overhead. This is helpful for looking for predators: leopards, servals, pythons, civets, and especially while on the look-out for large birds.
Rock hyraxes (commonly known as dassies) have a more rounded head than other hyraxes and a blunt nose. They have yellowish or greyish-brown coats on all but a bare scent gland on their back that is surrounded with longer hair, which is called a dorsal spot. This spot has black or yellow hair.
The yellow-spotted hyrax (sometimes called rock rabbits) is a bit smaller, with a pointy nose, resembling a rodent’s. The dorsal spot is whitish or yellowish, and most have a noticeable white patch above their eye.
Tree hyraxes have a white or yellow dorsal spot, and their thick, long, soft fur is highly valued (they are hunted for it).
Hyraxes can be found living anywhere from sea-level to altitudes over 14,000 feet. They live across Africa and the Middle East, in conditions from dry savanna to dense rainforest. Hyraxes do not dig their own tunnels (which may contribute to that African tale I was just talking about). Instead, they move into abandoned tunnels (such as an aardvark’s), or reside in natural crevices in rock. They sleep huddled together for warmth. Tree hyraxes, on the other hand, quite obviously live in trees.
Hyraxes in captivity are pretty easy to keep; their average lifespan is 9-14 years, and can be found as old as 12 when in captivity. Part of the low-maintenance level of hyraxes is due to their diet, but it’s also helped by hyraxes’ habit of using latrines.
Rock hyraxes live in groups with one territorial male and up to 20 females with young. Most males leave their herd after 14 months or 2 years. After a morning sun-bathe, the herd has a short feeding, where the family forms a circle, facing out, to watch for predators. If the male screams a warning, the hyraxes dive for cover and then freeze until the danger passes. Otherwise, the hyraxes continue eating their grasses, herbage, leaves, fruit, insects, lizards and birds' eggs. Interestingly, the vicious-looking two incisor teeth hyraxes have are only used for defense. They have to turn their heads to the side and bite with the side teeth to eat. Hyraxes can also go a long time without water; they get most of the moisture they need from their food.
Rock hyraxes as well as yellow-spotted hyraxes have two or three babies after an unusually long gestation period for such a small animal: 7-8 months. This points to the hyraxes’ history, to when they were much bigger and would need that much time. Their babies are fully-formed (eyes open, coats formed) after being born, however, and can run and jump just an hour after birth. They can also eat vegetation a few days later, though they aren’t weaned until after 3 months. The females often start nursery groups and have one female look after a bunch of young hyraxes. The mother has 6 nipples, two of which are on her shoulders, and each youngster has its own nipple, unable to drink from the others.
As if they knew how similar hyraxes are to so many animals, rock hyraxes are especially social with other species. Yellow-spotted hyraxes and rock hyraxes let their young play together, and even share sleeping dens, though they don’t interbreed: they are separate species. Not only that, but rock hyraxes have been known to share their territory with agamid lizards, banded mongoose, or even baboons! This sort of friendliness with other species is uncharacteristic for every other animal on Earth, excluding apes and, well, us, I suppose.
Tree hyraxes, on the other hand, only have one or two young, and are pretty anti-social; they form groups of only about two. These nocturnal hyraxes eat leaves and fruit, and are most known for their impressive sounds. They start out as a whistle, then a squeal, and finally ending as a shrill scream. This usually is performed while running up and down trees in the night. (That’s got to be a nice sound to wake up to.)
That’s all, boys and girls
Oh, but one more strange thing about hyraxes before you go. Did you know? Hyraceum, also known as congealed hyrax urine and feces, can be used to treat human epilepsy. Now you know!
African Wildlife Foundation: Wildlives (http://www.awf.org/wildlives/142)
The Hyrax: More Elephant Than Rodent
Hyrax – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyrax)
Nature Niche - The Rock Hyrax (Procavia capenis)
Rock Hyrax (http://www.robstewartphotography.com/facts/Hyrax.asp?i_id=631)
The Tailless Dassie