Hyracoidea – Hyraxes

African rock dwellers that resemble pikas but are more closely related to elephants!

The humble hyrax, often overlooked in the grand narratives of the animal kingdom, is a creature of fascinating paradoxes. Known colloquially as dassies, these small mammals present a rather rodent-like appearance but are astonishingly more closely related to the grandeur of elephants and the aquatic grace of sea cows. Indeed, one of the most striking indicators of this kinship is their sharp, tusk-like incisors, reminiscent of an elephant’s ivory.

Physically, hyraxes are compact animals, slightly larger than rabbits, with stumpy tails and rounded ears. They inhabit a range of environments, predominantly in Africa and the Middle East. The majority of hyraxes are adept rock climbers, living in rocky outcrops known as kopjes, where they navigate with surprising agility. They form highly social communities, with colonies that can burgeon to a robust 80 individuals, typically consisting of smaller family units of about four to five members.

The social structure of hyrax colonies is intricate, with a hierarchy that governs interactions and breeding rights. Within these communities, hyraxes exhibit a complex array of behaviors, from communal sunbathing on rocks to vocal communications that include an array of chirps, whistles, and grunts, each serving a specific social function.

Contrary to what might be perceived as a leisurely lifestyle, the extensive periods hyraxes spend sunbathing are a necessity rather than a preference. Their thick fur is part of an inefficient thermoregulatory system that struggles to maintain a stable body temperature. To compensate, hyraxes bask in the warmth of the sun to raise their body temperature and huddle together in the cool of their caves to conserve heat. This communal behavior is a survival strategy, allowing them to thrive in environments where temperature fluctuations might otherwise pose a challenge.

While the rock hyrax is the species most commonly observed, its arboreal cousin, the tree hyrax, leads a more concealed existence, nestled in the canopies of dense forests. Both species, however, share the characteristic vocal repertoire that can echo through their habitats during the dawn and dusk.