Cape Rock Hyrax {Procavia capensis}

The Cape rock hyrax, commonly known in South Africa as a dassie or a rock rabbit, is a stocky, squat animal that looks more like a guinea pig than a rabbit

South Africa WildlifeThe Cape Rock Hyrax {Procavia capensis}

The Cape rock hyrax, commonly known in South Africa as a dassie or a rock rabbit, is a stocky, squat animal that looks more like a guinea pig than a rabbit. The thick fur is a dull grey-brown, which changes according to the habitat. Those living in a wetter habitat tend to be browner, while those occupying arid areas take on a greyer hue.

Its heavy-set build, pointy head, short legs and stubby tail give his animal a cute factor that is quite undeniable. It has small round ears and prominent, long, pointed incisors that have been compared to tusks. In fact, it is widely known that the elephant is the closest relative of the dassie, despite their massive size difference. They walk on the full flat of the front feet, and tend to stick to their toes on the hind feet. The soles of its feet are large and soft, and there are glands that keep them damp. The testes of the male hyrax are abdominal on a permanent basis, and are heavier during mating season.

Hyraxes have a dorsal gland, making them unique. This gland is responsible for the secretion of a smell that is used for communication and to mark their territories. It is most visible in the males of the species, who are responsible for establishing territory.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Cape rock hyrax is its thermoregulation. Their body temperatures change according the diurnal rhythm (or the fluctuations in temperature through the day). However, it has been found that, even when these conditions are standardised and controlled, and there are no fluctuations, the body continues to ‘adjust’ its temperature. So, it is believed by some researchers that this rhythm is related more to the water balance regulation (how much water the body is taking in and expelling) of the hyrax.

Quick Facts

Size

Both the male and the female Cape hyrax average a length of about 55 centimetres.

Weight

The male is significantly heavier than his female counterpart. Males weigh between 3.2 and 4.7 kilograms, while females are between 2.5 and 4.2 kilograms.

Habitat

The Cape rock hyrax builds their dens in rock cavities or in holes in the rocky soil of mountain faces. They are also found in piles of rocks or boulders. Some are known to live in the tall trees near a cliff face, as they are accomplished climbers despite their somewhat cumbersome appearance.

Distribution

The Cape rock hyrax can be found throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert, as well as in some parts of the Middle East. In South Africa, they are prolific almost everywhere that these rocky conditions can be found. The only places in sub-Saharan Africa in which this little creature do not appear are the Congo Basin and Madagascar.

Diet - Omnivore

Dassies are foragers, and have a wide and varied diet. They graze on grasses, herbage, fruit, and leaves. But, they will also eat lizards, birds’ eggs and insects as and when they arise. While dining, dassies are always alert to predators, keeping their eyes fixed on their surrounds and their ears alert to any alarms.

They get a lot of their water from the foods that they eat, enabling them to survive for a relatively long time without direct access to clean water.

Socialisation

The rock hyrax feeds, forages, and lazes in the sun in large groups. In fact, seeing up to 80 of these animals together is not unusual. While feeding, a sentry is appointed – usually the male, who will stand on an elevated mound or rock and sound the alarm if there is any danger. When they hear the alarm, the others will quickly scuttle to safety, or remain completely immobile.

Thanks to their incomplete thermoregulation, hyraxes function best during the warmer hours of the morning and evening. During the heat of the day, they will be found sunning themselves. In fact, they spend up to 95% of their lives resting. On well-lit nights, they may also be active.

There is usually a dominant male hyrax, and several females and juveniles making up a herd. They will, interestingly, consider the ‘friend of a friend’ to be their own friend, establishing quite an advanced social system that is usually reserved for human beings.

Hyraxes use a specific area as a permanent toilet, which is kept away from where they live. Because of this, they have been successfully tamed and domesticated in many cases.

When feeling aggressive, the rock hyrax will make a chewing movement with its jaws and emit a loud grunt. Other than this, they have been known to make up to 21 different sounds as part of their complex communication structure with one another. In fact, just by studying the call, researchers can ascertain the caller’s age, weight, social status, hormonal state, and general health and wellbeing.

Reproduction

The dassie reaches sexual maturity at around 16 months old (although only being fully grown at about three years of age). After mating, it will give birth to between one and six babies (but usually two or three), following a long gestation period of about seven months. These babies are born in September and October, or March and April.

The babies are nursed for three months, but are born well developed and able to start eating soft vegetation from only two days old. Little ones are gathered together in a nursery group, which makes it easier to keep them safe from predators.

Gestation

The Cape rock hyrax has a long pregnancy for its size, with a gestation period of seven months.

Life Expectancy

The dassie lives for about 10 years in the wild.

Predators

The most common predators of dassies are birds of prey, as they swoop down and snatch them while they graze or sun themselves. The Verreaux’s eagle favours this tasty meal; but owls, hawks and other eagles are also common predators. In addition, wild dogs, caracals, servals, civets, domesticated dogs, snakes and leopards pose a threat to hyraxes. However, their numbers are extremely healthy and there is no threat of them facing extinction in the near future.

References

Mammals of the Southern African Subregion; Kruger National Park; Out to Africa; SANBI.

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Cape Rock Hyrax
Conservation Status

  • Least Concern

South Africa's Big Five

Did you know?

Hyraxes have a dorsal gland, making them unique. This gland is responsible for the secretion of a smell that is used for communication and to mark their territories. It is most visible in the males of the species, who are responsible for establishing territory.

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