003: hyrax

subscribe at tinyletter.com/sciencesnacks

hyrax — \ˈhī-ˌraks\ — noun

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. — source


“Look, that’s the face you make sometimes,” Steven said. He tugged me toward a new exhibit as I was fiddling with my phone, trying to find the San Diego Zoo geofilter in Snapchat so I could add a panda video to my story.

I didn’t look up. Steven, unencumbered by social media, doesn’t understand the urgency of posting things right as they happen. “What face?”

“That face that you make when you’re… uncomfortably receding back into your own neck and trying to smile.”

I turned, fully anticipating to see a turtle exhibit in front of us. Instead I was greeted with a large picture of this little guy and an exhibit full of little mole-like creatures laying on rocks.


The rock hyrax spends about 95 percent of its time resting. This can involve heaping, in which animals pile on top of each other inside a den, or basking in the sun. Both behaviors are compensations for the hyrax’s poorly developed thermoregulation. They tend to stay in their burrows until the sun is high in the morning and may not leave their dens at all on cold, rainy days. — source


We didn’t spend very long at the rock hyrax exhibit. Cute as they may be, watching a dassie (as they’re known in South Africa) sleep in the sunshine isn’t the best use of zoo time.

My favorite zoo animals are the giant tortoises. They seem to be okay with being in captivity, which was in saddening contrast to some of the big cats and the very smart animals like elephants and primates. Tortoises seem to be okay with everything, actually. I found that watching the giant tortoises had a meditative, calming effect after the loud human- and animal-screeching of the day. Tortoises just plod quietly along and go about their day. I relate very strongly to hyraxes and their little idiosyncrasies, but I think I love tortoises the most. They’re one of the few animals that I know of to play bumper cars with each other.

What’s your spirit animal?

— A