Hyraxes

Scientific name: Hyracoidea

Hyraxes are a group of mammals that include four living species.
Hyraxes are a group of mammals that include four living species. Photo © Panoramic Images / Getty Images.

Hyraxes (Hyracoidea) are a group of mammals that include four living species—the southern tree hyrax, western tree hyrax, yellow-spotted rock hyrax, and the rock hyrax. Although hyraxes resemble rodents, their closest living relatives are elephants, manatees, and dugongs. Hyraxes have thick, dense fur and a rotund body. They have a round head, short legs and a short tail.

Hyraxes measure between 12 and 20 inches long and weigh between 9 and 11 pounds.

They are active animals and agile climbers. The underside of their feet have specialized, soft pads that enhance the hyrax's grip. The soles of their feet are also kept moist by special sweat glands. Hyraxes have three toes on their hind feet. Two of the toes have hoof-like nails and the inner toe has a claw. The front feet have five toes. Hyraxes make a variety of vocalizations including whistles, chips, chatters, and other sounds.

Much remains to be discovered regarding the relationship hyraxes have to other mammals. Some of the characteristics of hyraxes indicates that the hyrax lineage might have diverged from the ungulates. Ancient hyraxes were larger than modern day hyraxes, perhaps as large as a modern horse. Today, the closest living relatives of the hyraxes are the elephants, manatees, and dugongs. Scientists formerly defined several dozen species of hyraxes but today, due to adjustments in classification schemes, there are only four species.

Hyraxes feed on a diet that consists largely of leaves, bark, and grass. But they are not entirely vegetarian, they also occasionally eat insects. Some species of hyraxes are tree-dwelling while others live on rocky terrain.

Hyraxes have poor internal temperature regulation. To compensate for this, they adjust their behavior to suit the environmental temperature.

For example, they huddle in groups when cold and bask in the sun to warm themselves. Some species of hyraxes live in small family units and defend a finite territory. A single male dominates each family group.

Hyraxes inhabit a range that includes sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. They have complex multi-chambered stomachs that enable them to digest their high-plant-fiber diet.

Key Characteristics

The key characteristics of hyraxes include:

  • rotund body
  • short legs and tail
  • thick fur
  • weigh between 9 and 11 pounds
  • closest living relatives are elephants, manatees, and dugongs

Classification

Hyraxes are classified within the following taxonomic hierarchy:

Animals > Chordates > Vertebrates > Tetrapods > Amniotes > Mammals > Hyraxes

Hyraxes are divided into the following taxonomic groups:

  • Tree hyraxes (Dendrohyrax) - There are 2 species of tree hyraxes alive today. Members of this group include the eastern tree hyrax and the western tree hyrax. Tree hyraxes are nocturnal animals that inhabit southern and central Africa.
  • Heterohyrax - There is one species of Heterohyrax alive today, the yellow-spotted rock hyrax. The yellow-spotted rock hyrax inhabit eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa. Yellow-spotted hyraxes are active during the day (diurnal) and bask in the sun during the morning and evening to maintain body heat.
  • Procavia - There is one species of Procavia alive today, the rock hyrax (also known as the rock badger). The rock hyrax inhabits areas in central and southern Africa, as well as parts of the Middle East. The rock hyrax has a pointed snout, a short neck, and rounded ears. They form colonies of as many as 80 individuals. The colonies are divided into smaller family groups, each with up to 15 individuals.
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Klappenbach, Laura. "Hyraxes." ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2015, thoughtco.com/hyraxes-profile-130223. Klappenbach, Laura. (2015, June 11). Hyraxes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hyraxes-profile-130223 Klappenbach, Laura. "Hyraxes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hyraxes-profile-130223 (accessed October 23, 2017).