Dassie, a Rock Hyrax and family of the Elephant

Once upon a time, on a very rainy day, when all the animals had been invited to go and receive their tails – if they wished to have any – they went in great numbers to the place appointed to try them on.  The lazy rock-rabbit (Dassie), however, thought it was too wet for him to venture out of his cosy warm hole.  So he sat there looking at the others as they passed by, and called out to each one, “Here, friend, do bring my tail for me as you come back.”  When they returned, all adorned with their beautiful tails, some long, some short, some bushy, some smooth, no tail was brought to the lazy rock-rabbit and he was left without one forever.

The Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis), or Dassie, is one of the four living species of the order Hyracoidea, and the only living species in the genus Procavia.  Like all hyraxes, it is a medium-sized terrestrial mammal, superficially resembling a guinea pig with short ears and tail.  The rock hyrax is found across Africa and the Middle East, in habitats with rock crevices in which to escape from predators.  Their fur is thick and grey-brown color, although this varies strongly between different environments; from dark brown in wetter habitats, to light gray in desert living individuals.

One of the most incredible facts about Table Mountain’s Dassies is that they are the closest related relatives to Elephants.  Despite the enormous difference in size between the two, research has claimed the Dassie is the African elephant’s closest living relative.  Recent research has revealed that these claims may not be unfathomable – at least in terms of size.  A new discovery has revealed that the oldest ancestors of modern-day elephants were little bigger than a rabbit.  A 60 million-year-old skull dug up in Morocco has been identified as the earliest form of elephant species.  This creature was trunk-less, measured less than 50 cm from tip to tail and weighed just 5kg.  The mini-jumbo had front incisors which jutted out of its mouth to form the forerunner of the modern tusks.  Analysis of the teeth in the skull proved it was related, however distant, to the modern elephant. It is 10 million years older than other Elephant ancestor fossils discovered.  The close evolutionary relationship between the tiny Dassie and the enormous African Elephant is deduced from similarities in the structure of their feet and teeth.

Dassies live in herds of up to 80 individuals.  These herds are subdivided into smaller flocks consisting of a few families.  These families consist of 3 to 15 related adult females, a dominant male, and several young.  The dominant male defends and watches over the group.  The male also marks its territory to avoid any altercations.  In Africa, hyraxes are preyed on by leopards, cobras, puff adders, caracals, wild dogs, and eagles.  Hyraxes feed on a wide variety of different plants, including both grasses and broad leafed plants.  They also have been reported to eat insects and grubs.

Rock hyraxes are very noisy and sociable.  Adults make use of at least 21 different vocal signals.  The most familiar signal is a high trill, and is given in response to perceived danger.  Rock hyrax calls are referred to as “songs.”  Hyrax songs can provide important biological information such as size, age, social status, body weight, condition, and hormonal state of the singer, as determined by measuring their song length, patterns, complexity, and frequency.

The rock hyrax spends approximately 95% of its time resting.  During this time, they can often be seen basking in the sun, which is thought to be an element of their complex thermo-regulation.  Rock Hyraxes produce large quantities of hyraceum (sticky mass of dung and urine) that has been employed by people in the treatment of several medical disorders, including epilepsy and convulsions.  Hyraceum has also recently been “rediscovered” by intrepid perfumers who tincture it in alcohol to yield a natural animal musk.