East Africa and Middle East


Rocky scrublands, savanna, and desert

Little brother of the elephant

What is one of the closest living relatives of the elephant? If you said the manatee or dugong, which are both marine mammals, you would be correct. But there is another family member that is often forgotten: the hyrax (HI-racks)!

It might look a bit like a large guinea pig or rabbit with very short ears, but the hyrax is neither. Instead, the hyrax has similar teeth, toes, and skull structures to that of an elephant’s. More importantly, the hyrax shares an ancestor with the elephant. The hyrax’s strong molars grind up tough vegetation, and two large incisor teeth grow out to be tiny tusks, just like an elephant’s.

There are three members of the Procaviidae or hyrax family: the rock hyrax, tree hyrax, and bush or yellow-spotted hyrax. This fact sheet focuses on the rock hyrax.

Furry footballs

The rock hyrax is covered in short brown fur, with a lighter underbelly. There are extra-long hairs that stick out around the body called guard hairs to help the hyrax feel its way around, the same way a cat uses its whiskers. The hyrax has short legs and rounded toes with a long nail, called a grooming claw, on the inner toe of the back foot that is used for picking through hair and scratching an itch.

A scent gland on its back (called a dorsal gland) is covered with longer black hairs. The gland is used to mark rocks or trees to communicate with other hyraxes. A male hyrax’s nose is larger than a female’s. All hyraxes have a special eyelid (called a nictitating membrane) for sun and dust protection; a bulge in each iris acts as a built-in sun visor.

Rock hyraxes are also called rock rabbits, or dassies. Other hyrax nicknames include pimbi, stone badger, cape hyrax, coney, and klipdas.
Hyrax colonies use the same area for their toilet, leaving white stains (crystallized urine) on the rocks.
Millions of years ago, hyraxes were one of the most important herbivores around and were the size of today’s tapirs.
Hyraxes don’t need much water because they get most of it from their food.
Hyraxs are called conies in the Bible.
Perfumes are made of caked deposits of hyrax urine combined with hyrax feces.
Adult hyraxes are inactive 95 percent of the time.
Hyraxes have an unusually long gestation period for an animal the size of a football: seven to eight months.
The hyrax was first scientifically described in 1766.

The San Diego Zoo’s original colony of 10 adult rock hyraxes (three males and seven females), was received in 1963 as a gift from South Africa’s Department of Nature Conservation.

A colony of rock hyraxes will be featured at the Zoo’s Africa Rocks when it opens in 2017, and some may be seen across from the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. Come see these marvelous little critters and watch how they turn a rock into a home!

Rock hyraxes are not considered an endangered species and have become as common as our North American squirrels. As a result, they are considered pests in some areas, competing with farmers by eating freshly planted fields; and competing with cattle, sheep, and goats for grassy grazing sites. They are also hunted for their meat and soft fur, but so far their populations are stable. Mange, a skin disease, is lethal to hyraxes and can wipe out a whole colony. More research is needed to further understand these remarkable little mammals.

You can help us bring other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.