The Rock Hyrax Procavia capensis was described in 1766 by Peter Simon Pallas, a Prussian zoologist and botanist, who reportedly first saw a specimen in a Cape Town tavern. However, although he had planned to visit the Cape, it would appear that he never actually made the voyage, and it is more likely that he examined specimens when working through Dutch museum collections in Europe. Pallas described the Rock Hyrax together with several other South African species including the Bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus, the Eland Tragelaphus oryx and the Red Hartebeest Alceplaphus buselaphus.
Rock Hyraxes were well-known long before their formal description however, and indigenous tribes across Africa would have been familiar with them. Early Dutch navigators made mention of hyraxes during early voyages around the Cape. In 1601 Captain Joris van Spilbergen recorded hyraxes from what is now called Dassen Island, comparing them to badgers. Hyraxes were caught and eaten in large quantities by sailors and attempts were made to introduce them to other islands, but with limited success. Later, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1654, prohibited the collection of these mammals from Dassen Island as their numbers were dropping and this is probably one of the first formal conservation policies promulgated in Africa!
Another colloquial name for the hyrax is dassie, which is commonly used by both Afrikaans and English language speakers. It is derived from the Dutch word das in reference to a badger. In the Nguni languages which include isiZulu, isiNdebele and isiXhosa, hyraxes are called imbila and in Sesotho and Setswana as pela.
The rock hyrax is a small mammal measuring 45 – 60 cm with a mass of 2.5 – 4.6 kg. There is a great degree of pelage colour variation which has led to the description of numerous subspecies; however, this is largely due to blending into their habitat. Colouration ranges from reddish to greyish brown.
The rock hyrax has a wide distribution range across much of southern and eastern Africa, as well as across the dry Sahel region of West Africa. Within this vast range they occur in specific habitat types which have rocky outcrops and hills with boulders and crevices for shelter. Hyraxes are incapable of making their own burrows due to the structure of their feet, and so rely on rocky outcrops with sufficient hideouts in which to seek refuge. Hyraxes lose body heat during the night and therefore huddle up close together in groups. They are also fond of sun-basking on rocks and will emerge from their shelter shortly after sunrise to warm themselves. In many regions they occur on rocky outcrops in arid areas where temperatures can soar during the day and drop to near freezing at night. They are sensitive to high temperatures and use behavioural methods to avoid overheating – either retreating into their shelters or sitting under the shade of rock overhangs or tree branches.
Hyraxes can survive without direct access to water for extended periods and rely on their diet for most of their water needs. They will however drink water from rock pools during and after rainfall. Hyraxes are strictly vegetarian and take a wide range of plants and grasses. This includes leaves from many different tree and shrub species, usually situated close to their rocky retreats, but will also eat bark, fruits, berries and flowers. They will travel a considerable distance when foraging.
Hyraxes commonly fall prey to a variety of predators, especially raptors such as Verreaux’s and Crowned Eagles. They are also taken by cats such as caracal and leopard, as well as snakes like black mambas and pythons. They are most vulnerable to predation when out foraging or when dispersing to new habitat when the population increases, or males are ousted and need to find new shelter. A female, or sometimes a male, will act as sentinel and keep a watchful eye out for danger. They emit a sharp cry which immediately sends all hyraxes scrambling for cover.
Hyraxes will breed throughout the year and females give birth to an average of 2-3 young. The young are precocious, meaning that they are born fully furred with open eyes and able to move about on their own within a few minutes. They will then suckle from the female. Maturity is reached within 28 – 29 months in males and earlier in females.
Are hyraxes related to elephants?
There is some truth to this statement, but the answer is much more complex. Hyraxes (family Procaviidae) and elephants (family Elephantidae), based on the best scientific evidence and the fossil record, share a common ancestor, also shared with the aquatic sirenians (dugongs). This means that they all evolved from the same ancestral line.This is further supported by modern genetic sequencing as well as anatomical comparisons. Hyraxes have similar toenails and padded feet to that of elephants and certain skeletal features are similar. In taxonomy, hyraxes, elephants and dugongs are placed in the mammal cohort called the Paenungulata. However, these different mammals split millions of years ago and are on their own evolutionary trajectory and as such are placed in different mammal orders. The hyraxes fall in the order Hyracoidea and the elephants in the order Proboscidea.