Hyraxes are herbivores, plant eaters, that resemble guinea pigs. They have short legs, a stubby tail, and round ears. There is no average size, as the species vary greatly across Africa, but the growth of the hyrax seems to be directly linked to precipitation, or rainfall—the largest hyraxes are in the areas with the most rainfall.
The feet have pads on them that contain sweat glands. The hyrax sweats as it runs, which help its feet pads grip, making it easier to climb. The feet are flexible and can turn upwards. The front foot has four toes and the hind foot has three toes. All toes have flat nails except for the second toe of the hind foot. This toe sports a long, curved claw used for grooming.
All hyraxes have fur, but the length of it depends on the climate in which they live. The colder the temperature, the longer the fur. Coat color ranges from light to dark, and may be brown, white, or gray. The bulging eyes are framed by bushy white eyebrows. The head is flat on top, and the muzzle, nose and mouth area, is shaped like a skunk’s muzzle.
Hyraxes live mainly in Africa. The rock hyrax has been seen from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.
Hyraxes easily adapt to their surroundings and can work with any kind of shelter so long as it provides the necessary protection from weather and predators, animals that hunt them for food.
Each species is distinct in terms of where it lives. The bush and rock hyraxes need mountain cliffs and an abundance of rocks for refuge. Tree hyraxes prefer moist forests and savannas, a tropical environment that contains trees and shrubs and has a dry season. At higher elevations they can survive among rocks.
The hyrax eats mostly twigs, fruit, and bark as well as leaves, but it also feeds on lizard and bird eggs. Because their food is plant based, hyraxes can go for long periods of time without water, getting the moisture they need from the plants they eat.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Rock and bush hyraxes are active during daylight hours and tend to live in groups whereas tree hyraxes are nocturnal, active at night, and prefer to live on their own. The social unit of the rock and bush hyraxes includes one adult male and about seventeen adult females, with their young. Though solitary, tree hyraxes have been found in groups of two or three. In this group, too, there is a hierarchy, rank structure, and the male is at the top.
Hyraxes mate once a year. Gestation, pregnancy, lasts twentysix to thirty weeks, and the number of babies per female ranges from one to four. Mothers suckle only their own babies, and the young stop nursing anywhere from one to five months. Both sexes are ready to mate between sixteen and seventeen months of age. At this time, females join the adult female group while males take off on their own. Adult females live longer than adult males and may reach eleven years or more.
Young hyraxes are playful, with normal behavior including biting, climbing, chasing, and fighting.
HYRAXES AND PEOPLE
Some African people hunt hyraxes for food and skin. The tree hyrax is harvested to be used in medicine. Deep coughs are relieved by drinking the ash of burnt hairs mixed with honey or water. Also, some tribes wrap newborn babies in hyrax skin to ensure health and vitality.
Three hyrax species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Because these three species are found primarily in the African forests, their status is probably the result of habitat destruction, as well as being hunted for food and their fur. No other species has been given special status.