Photo: John Jacques - Pueblo Chieftain
Tucked away in the crevice of a rock, in the corner of a building, in the back part of the zoo is a small, unassuming animal that is often overlooked. The laid-back rock hyraxes at the Pueblo Zoo might not mind that, but guests miss out if they don’t give these adorable guys a second look.
Probably the strangest, most interesting fact about rock hyraxes is about their ancestry. Though they look like football-shaped, fuzzy guinea pigs, they are actually most closely related to elephants and manatees.
The similarity of their tusk-like incisors, skull structure and toes hint to the relationship to elephants. Fossil remains indicate that hyraxes were much larger in ancient times. The introduction of larger grazing animals like cattle and antelope reduced the hyrax species to several smaller species adapted to living in less-accessible tree and rock habitats.
Another hint to the relationship to their huge relatives is their unusually long gestation period of 7-8 months. This is more in line with very large animals instead of small rodent-like animals.
Rock hyraxes appear to lead quite a leisurely life. They rely on sun and shelter to regulate their body temperature, so on fair-weather days they can be found basking for hours in the sun on the hot rocks. In cold, wet weather, they don’t bother to come out of their shelter, preferring instead to huddle together for warmth. In fact, between napping, cuddling and sunbathing, rock hyraxes are only active about 5 percent of the time. The ultimate chillaxers!
In addition to being lazily adorable, hyraxes have some very cool physical features that help them survive. To protect them during their sunbathing sessions, they have a special eyelid for sun and dust protection, and a bulge in each iris acts as a built-in sun visor.
Their feet are specially made for getting around safely on rocks. The bottom of each foot is bare and 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. They also have excellent vision, which helps them see a predator up to 1,000 yards away.
Rocky and Janet, the Pueblo Zoo resident hyraxes can be found in the Islands of Life building. Since hyraxes generally give birth around the same time every year, the Pueblo Zoo keeps a lookout in late December and early January to see if any little ones appear.
Another place you might spot a rock hyrax is in the newly created South African penguin habitat mural in the EcoCenter. As they would naturally be found in the same habitat, guests may spot a couple of rock hyraxes hidden in the painting.
JUST THE FACTS
Scientific name: Procavia capensis
Common name: Rock hyrax. They also are called dassies or rock rabbits.
Description: While the rock hyrax closely resembles many members of the rodent family (such as the guinea pig), they are actually most closely related to elephants and manatees. A hyrax is a tail-less mammal that has thick hair covering its body. The animals have a variety of different colorings, but are typically brownish-gray on their backs and lighter colored on their stomachs. Their bodies are covered in slightly longer hairs called guard hairs, which help hyraxes feel their surroundings, much like how a cat uses its whiskers. Rock hyraxes have a scent gland on their backs that is covered in longer, darker hairs (usually black). They use the gland to mark territories and communicate. Their feet have rubber-like pads that allow it to climb easily around in their rocky habitat. The center of the pad lifts up, creating a suction-cup effect.
Social structure: Rock hyraxes live in groups that can range in size from two to 30 individuals. Groups are usually made up of a breeding male and several adult females and their offspring. Occasionally, younger males will live on the outskirts of the larger group.
Diet: Rock hyraxes are herbivores, eating primarily grass, although they will eat fruits and leaves when grass is unavailable during the dry season.
Range: Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Habitat: They live in small openings and crevices within rock faces or areas with large boulders. Rock hyraxes look for shelters that are large enough to fit themselves and any offspring, but small enough that predators cannot get inside easily.
Reproduction and rearing: Although breeding seasons vary slightly depending on location, mating generally takes place between August and November. Females give birth to between one and six babies after a gestation of 202 to 245 days (about 61/2 to 8 months). Babies are fully precocial at birth, able to walk and move within a day. They drink milk from mom, but start trying solid foods at 3 months old. Babies are weaned at 6 months, but continue to live with the colony. At 2 years of age, males leave the colony to go find another group to live with, while females stay in the colony they were born into for their entire lives.
Lifespan: Rock hyraxes can live up to 11 years in the wild.
Threats: There are many predators where rock hyraxes live, including leopards, hyenas, servals, pythons and eagles. Rock hyraxes use their rocky habitat to their advantage by hiding in crevices from these predators. They are considered to be “least concern” by the IUCN Redlist and are actually considered to be pests in some places because they raid farmers’ crops.
References: arkive.org; animals.sandiegozoo.org; iucnredlist.org