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Hyrax
FACT FILE:
Swahili Name: Pelele or Wibari
Scientific Name: Rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), yellow-spotted hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei), tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax dorsalis)
Size: 12 inches at the shoulder
Weight: 5 to 9 pounds
Lifespan: 12 years
Habitat: Dry savanna to dense rain forest
Diet: Herbivorous
Gestation: 7 months
Predators: Leopard, pythons, large birds, servals, civets


The hyrax is so unlike other animals that it is placed in a separate order (Hyracoidea) by itself. It is said to be the elephant's nearest living relative. This is true to a certain extent, but misleading since the relationship stems from a remote ancestor common to hyraxes, sea cows (dugongs and manatees) and elephants. These three are unlike other mammals, but they share various if disproportionate physiological similarities in teeth, leg and foot bones, testes (that do not descend into a scrotum) and other more obscure details.

Physical Characteristics
The hyrax, also called rock rabbit or dassie, is a small furry mammal. It looks like a robust, oversized guinea pig, or a rabbit with rounded ears and no tail. Hyraxes have stumpy toes with hooflike nails, four toes on each front foot and three on each back foot. The longer, clawlike nails on the inside toes of the back feet are used for grooming and scratching. The bottoms of the feet have a rubbery texture to assist in climbing steep rock surfaces and trees.

Of the three hyrax species, two are known as rock (or bush) hyrax and the third as tree hyrax. In the field it is sometimes difficult to differentiate among them.

The rock hyrax has the widest distribution in East Africa. Its coat is yellowish or grayish-brown, and the dorsal spot (a bare scent gland on the back covered with longer hair) is covered with black or yellow hair. Its head is more rounded than other types of hyraxes, and the nose is blunt.

The yellow-spotted hyrax, or rock rabbit, is smaller in size and has a more pointed, rodentlike nose. Generally it has a conspicuous white patch above the eye, and its dorsal spot is whitish or yellowish. It is sometimes seen in company of other types of hyrax, but species do not interbreed.

Tree hyraxes, unsurprisingly, spend a lot of time in trees. In some areas they are hunted for their thick, soft, long hair. They have a white or yellow dorsal spot.

Habitat
Hyraxes are very adaptable. In East Africa they live at sea level and up to altitudes of over 14,000 feet and in habitats ranging from dry savanna to dense rainforest to cold Afro-alpine moorland.

Behavior
Rock hyraxes do not dig burrows. They live in colonies of 50 or so in natural crevices of rocks or bolders. They regularly use "latrines" and in areas they inhabit, conspicuous white deposits from their urine form on rock faces. They are active in the daytime and can be seen feeding or sunning themselves near the entrances to their shelters.

Hyrax vocalizations include twitters, growls, whistles and shrieks. One group will answer the contact calls of another group. The raucous nocturnal shriek of the tree hyrax is most impressive, starting as a squeak or whistle, then rising to a piglike squeal and finally to a child's scream. Hyraxes do most of their screaming as they ascend or descend trees during the night.

The tree hyrax is nocturnal and not as social as the rock hyraxes. They are often found in pairs and do not form much larger groups.

Although naturally shy, hyraxes in captivity become quite tame. Their habits of using latrines and eating a variety of vegetative material make them easy to keep. They have been recorded as living as long 12 years.

Diet
Rock hyraxes spend several hours sunbathing in the mornings, followed by short excursions to feed. They eat quickly with the family group facing out from a circle to watch for potential predators, feeding on grasses, herbage, leaves, fruit, insects, lizards and birds' eggs. After biting off a mouthful of grass or leaves, the hyrax looks up and cautiously checks the vicinity. If the territorial male gives the shrill shriek of alarm, the hyraxes jump or scuttle to cover where they remain frozen, without moving, until the danger has passed. They can go a long time without water, apparently obtaining enough moisture from their food. Tree hyraxes feed on leaves and fruits.

Caring for the Young
Rock hyraxes bear two or three young, which are so fully developed they can run and jump about an hour after birth. Although suckled until 3 months old, the young begin to eat vegetation by their second day. The young of all females in a family group often gather in a nursery group. The tree hyrax has fewer young (one or two at the most) than rock hyraxes, but they have many similar behaviors traits, such as always defecating and urinating on the same spot.

Predators
Hyraxes are preyed upon by leopards, pythons, large birds, caracals, servals and civets. They protect themselves from smaller predators by biting, but escaping to hiding places among the rocks is their best defense.

Did you know?
  • Fossil remains indicate there were once hyraxes the size of oxen. This may explain its gestation period of 7 or 8 months, unusually long for an animal of its size.
  • Rock hyraxes live in groups with one territorial male and up to 20 females and their young. Several groups may live in one area, but each male defends his territory from other males.


                                                       copyright: Paul Janssen