Body length: 12 to 23 inches (30 to 58 centimeters)
Shoulder height: 8 to12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters)
Weight: 4 to 12 pounds (1.8 to 5.4 kilograms)
Lifespan: up to 11 years in zoos, up to 9 years in the wild
Gestation: 7 to 8 months
Number of young at birth: 1 to 6
Weight at birth: 6 to 8 ounces (170 to 240 grams)
Sexual maturity: 16 to 17 months
Conservation status: lower risk
Rock hyraxes are also called rock rabbits, or dassies. Other hyrax nicknames include pimbi, stone badger, cape hyrax, coney, and klipdas.
Hyrax colonies use the same area for their toilet, leaving white stains on the rocks.
Millions of years ago, hyraxes were one of the most important herbivores around and were the size of today’s tapirs!
Hyraxes don’t need much water because they get most of it from their food.
Mammals: Rock Hyrax
The thin “line” on this rock hyrax’s back is its dorsal (or scent) gland.
Little brother of the elephant
What are the closest living relatives of the elephant? If you said the manatee or dugong, which are both marine mammals, you would be correct. But there is another family member that is often forgotten: the hyrax!
It might look a bit like a large guinea pig or rabbit, but the hyrax is neither. Instead, the hyrax has similar teeth, toes, and skull structures like an elephant’s. More importantly, the hyrax shares an ancestor with the elephant. Strong molars grind up tough vegetation, and two large incisor teeth grow out to be tiny tusks, just like an elephant’s.
There are three species of hyrax: rock hyrax Procavia capensis; tree, or bush, hyrax Dendrohyrax sp.; and yellow-spotted hyrax Heterohyrax sp. This fact sheet focuses on the rock hyrax.
Look for the longer “grooming” claw on the hind foot of this rock hyrax.
The hyrax is covered in short brown fur, with a lighter underbelly. There are extra-long hairs that stick out around the body called guard hairs to help the hyrax feel its way around, the same way a cat uses its whiskers. The hyrax has short legs and rounded toes with a long nail, called a grooming claw, on the inner toe of the back feet that is used for picking through hair and scratching an itch. A scent gland on its back is covered with longer black hairs. The gland is used to mark rocks or trees to communicate with other hyraxes.
What’s that you say?
Hyraxes use several types of vocalizations, including twitters, growls, whistles, and shrieks. They vocalize to contact groups in different locations just like we might play a game of Marco Polo in the swimming pool: one calls out and another calls back. A happy, friendly hyrax makes a squeaky whistle, a sharp bark is a warning call that danger is near, while a low grunt means “Don’t mess with me!”
Rocky outcrops provide lots of hidey-holes for hyraxes.
Life on the rocks
All three hyrax species live in Africa, but rock hyraxes are also found along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. As their name implies, they hang out in areas where there are boulders, rock formations, or even little nooks on sheer cliffs that provide shelter and protection. Hyrax feet are built for rock climbing: the bottom of each foot has a moist, rubbery pad that lifts up in the center for a suction-cup effect to help the hyrax cling to rocks and other smooth surfaces without slipping.
Here comes the sun
Rock hyraxes live up to the expression, “safety in numbers.” They may live in colonies of up to 50 individuals, sharing sleeping areas and looking for food together. Each day starts with a group sunbathing session in the morning for several hours. Once warmed up, they then head out for a short period of feeding. Rock hyraxes do not like cool or rainy weather and won’t even come out of their rock shelter if the weather is not to their liking.
Yellow-spotted hyraxes often live in the same rocky areas as rock hyraxes and often share shelter holes and huddle together to warm up in the morning. Their young even play together! They are one of the few animals that live together in this way.
Can you see the tiny “tusks” on the rock hyrax in the middle of this photo?
Staying safe at meal time
Hyraxes have a three-chambered stomach with bacteria to help digest the plants they eat: grasses, fruits, leaves, and occasionally insects, lizards, and birds’ eggs. Rock hyraxes feed in a circle formation, with their heads pointing to the outside of the circle to keep an eye out for predators, such as leopards, servals, pythons, and large birds of prey. With their excellent vision, they can spot a predator over 1,000 yards (900 meters) away! During each feeding period, the dominant male pauses between bites to watch for danger. He sounds a shriek alarm if he sees anything of concern, which sends all of the hyraxes scrambling for cover, where they remain absolutely still until they think the danger has passed.
It may sound gross, but feeding hyrax poop to a baby hyrax gives its stomach the bacteria it will need to digest plants later on.
Growing up hyrax
Female rock hyraxes stay with their family for life. There is one male for every five to seven females that patrols a certain territory within his colony. When babies are born, the entire colony greets and sniffs the young ones. Nursery groups are formed for all the babies. Rock hyrax babies weigh just a few ounces when they are born but look like miniature adults. Within three days of birth they are already trying out solid foods, not just relying on Mom’s milk. To get the bacteria their stomachs need to help them digest plants, the babies also eat hyrax poop!
Although at home on the rocks, trees can be comfortable, too!
In the first few weeks to months of birth, the babies learn from their mother, siblings, and other group members by watching and then repeating the action they see. When Mom starts to eat succulent plants on the rock, baby starts nibbling on the same plant after watching her. They also learn how to interact with other hyraxes and avoid predators through this learning style. Males will leave the colony at about two years of age to go live on the outskirts of another colony and perhaps take it over when they are old enough.
So far, so good
Hyraxes are not considered an endangered species and have become as common as our North American squirrels. As a result, in some areas they are considered pests, competing with cattle, sheep, and goats for grazing sites. They are also hunted for their meat and soft fur, but so far their populations are stable. Come see these marvelous little critters at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park and watch how they turn a rock into a home!