Resembling a large guinea pig with a grouchy-looking overbite, the rock hyrax is not at all what he appears.
The furry creature, native to sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, goes by many names including «rock badger», «rock rabbit» and «dassie.» Approximately the size and shape of a groundhog, it’s no surprise that people aren’t exactly sure what kind of animal the hyrax is — because he isn’t a rodent at all.
The hyrax holds the unique honor of being the elephant’s closest living relative — on land, that is.
The elephant, hyrax and manatee all descend from a common hooved ancestor from the group of mammals known as tethytheria, who died out some 50 million years ago.
While thousands of pounds separate the hyrax from elephants and manatees today, their toes, teeth and skull are surprisingly pachyderm-like. The hyrax’s vampiric incisors, which give the animal an eternally grumpy expression, resemble tiny tusks. And the rounded hoof-like nails on the toes of their rubbery feet are far from the sharp, curved claws of some rodents.
The little animals live in close family groups, like elephants, but prefer arid, rocky terrain.
“Rock hyraxes are diurnal [most active during the day] social animals which live in family groups either in rocky outcrops or trees. They are herbivores which are predated on by raptors and pythons,” Nicci Wright, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist at Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital in South Africa, told The Dodo. “The young are born precocial, which means they are born with fur, their eyes open and physically mobile.”
These little creatures live in big groups — colonies of as many as 80, if space allows. The animals are most often found sunbathing, soaking in some rays before going off as a pack to forage for food.
But these gregarious little mammals now have another thing to worry about beyond snakes — expanding cities. And their taste for shoots, leaves and budding flowers do them no favors in city centers from Jerusalem to Johannesburg.
“Dassies in urban areas are under threat of diminished habitat due to rapid urbanization,” Wright said. “This forces them to enter people’s properties, where they browse in the gardens. Sometimes dassies move into roof spaces and that becomes problematic.”
Rock hyraxes often wind up where they shouldn’t be. Two rescued hyraxes who recently arrived at Wright’s clinic were an adult pulled from a car engine, and a baby found in the jaws of a cat.
When they met, the two did what rock hyraxes do best — make friends.
“We introduced the baby to the sub-adult so they could bond and the baby could learn from the older animal,” Wright said. “When the baby was old enough, they were both moved into an outside enclosure where they could sunbathe and get used to the elements.”
Soon enough, the two animals were ready to be reintroduced to the wild.
“[The baby] bonded with an older male dassie and soon learned to browse on a variety of indigenous grasses and foliage,” the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital wrote in a Facebook post. “A suitable release site with a small gorge and rocky outcrop was identified and they were released into an existing colony.”
Though these odd little creatures are not considered a threatened species by the IUCN Red List, they certainly deserve attention.
“We receive numerous calls concerning dassies,” the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital continued. “As our cities expand, their habitats are shrinking and this can cause human-wildlife conflict.”