I was in Indianapolis last week and saw the cutest little animal at the zoo: the rock hyrax.
Rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis) are small mammals that resemble rodents. In fact, an alternate name for them is ‘rock rabbits.’ Rock hyraxes are also known as ‘dassies’ or ‘conies.’ Here’s a fun fact: the term ‘coney’ in the Bible refers to rock hyraxes! Besides being mentioned in Proverbs as a small but wise animal, hyraxes are also directly called out for not being kosher.
Adult rock hyraxes are typically 8 – 12 inches (20 – 30 cm) tall at the shoulder and 12 – 23 inches long (30 – 58 cm). They live throughout most of Africa and along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
Rock hyraxes also have a surprising secret for such a small creature: they are closely related to elephants.
Yep, it’s true. Rock hyraxes are part of the animal order Hyracoidea, along with the other two species of hyrax. The closest surviving relatives of this order are the order Proboscidea (elephants) and Sirenia (manatees and dugongs).
How did this evolutionary tree happen? Millions of years ago, the descendants of a common ancestor to these three orders began evolving in different ways. Hyrax ancestors began to get smaller; while we have fossils from 30 million years ago of hyraxes the size of tapirs, they’ve obviously shrunk a lot since then! Other descendants seem to have eventually taken to the water, eventually evolving into elephants, manatees, and dugongs.
You can see hints of their connected evolutionary past in the similarities between elephants and hyraxes. Like elephants, hyraxes have flattened, hoof-like nails on the tips of their fingers instead of curved, elongated claws. Hyraxes also have continuously growing tusks developing from their incisors, just as elephants do (most mammalian tusks develop from the canine teeth). Finally, hyraxes, elephants, manatees, and dugongs all lack a scrotum (this is an elephant fact I didn’t know!). Instead, their testicles are tucked up in their body alongside their kidneys.
As you might expect, rock hyraxes live in rocky areas. They like to make their homes around boulders and rock formations that offer shelter and protection from predators.
Rock hyraxes have no issues climbing around rocky areas. Their feet have a bare patch on the bottom and a rubbery pad. This pad curves up in the center, creating a suction-cup effect that lets a rock hyrax cling to smooth surfaces. Sweat glands also help keep this pad moist, increasing the suction that each foot can create.
Finding a rock hyrax colony is pretty easy – just look for a white stain. Rock hyrax urine has large amounts of calcium carbonate that crystallizes. Since each colony has a dedicated pee spot, the urine crystals build up and eventually form white patches.
Rock elephants are very social and live in colonies of 5 to 50 individuals. In addition, rock hyraxes sometimes live with bush hyraxes in a rare example of interspecies cohabitation. Although the two species can’t breed with each other, they will share shelter holes, huddle together in the morning, and let their young play together.
Female hyraxes typically stay in the colony they were born into for their entire life. On the other hand, males will leave their natal colony by the time they’re two years old to find one to eventually take over one day.
Rock hyrax babies are all typically born around the same time after an unusually long gestation period for such a small animal; gestation is 6 – 8 months, which may be a holdover from when hyraxes were larger. After the pups are born, the other colony members will take turns sniffing and greeting the newest arrivals. Mothers will take turns watching over all of the colony’s pups. The pups are born very developed and start eating solid food by just three days old! As they grow, they learn what to eat, how to interact with other hyraxes, and how to avoid predators by watching and imitating their mother and other adults in the colony.
The inactive life
Rock hyraxes aren’t very sporty, spending 95% of their time chilling in the sun. When they do decide to move around, rock hyraxes spend their time feeding in a circle formation. They form a circle as a group, with their heads on the outside. The dominant male of the colony will pause between each bite to check for danger. If he sees a predator (like leopards, hyenas, or eagles), he’ll give an alarm cry, and all the hyraxes will scatter.
Outside of feeding, though, rock hyraxes are busy sunbathing. Each morning starts with a few hours of laying with the colony in the sun. If it’s too cold or rainy, rock hyraxes won’t even bother coming out of their rock shelters.
So don’t feel bad if you don’t want to go to work on a rainy day – you’re just emulating the cutest elephant relative around.