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The Hyrax – The Elephant’s Cousin

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Hyrax may look like a guinea pig to the casual observer but looks can be very deceptive.  It has even been called the rock rabbit but its family tree is much stranger than you might expect. Its nearest living relatives are the elephant and, bizarrely, the sea cow.

There are four species in its own special order (Hyracoidea) and they all live in Africa and the Middle East.  As their name suggests they like to live in areas with plenty of rocky crevices in which they can take cover when attacked by predators.

You might think it lazy, but the rock hyrax loves to rest.  Almost all of the time.  Yet this is due more to their complex system of thermoregulation than innate lethargy. They often look as if they have simply conked out but there is usually another hyrax watching for danger.

They are social animals and live in groups, sometimes numbering up to eight.  Like the meerkat (some say they look like fat versions of the mongoose species) they warn each other of approaching danger by standing on their hind legs and giving out an alarm call.

A somewhat squat and heavily built creature, the rock hyrax is usually about 50 centimeters in length and weighs in at a health 4kg. Due to the extent of their habitat their fur color can vary from a grey to a light brown.  Their size varies, too, from habitat to habitat – it is thought that it has a direct relationship to how much rain falls in the area.

It is easy to scratch one’s head and wonder just how the rock hyrax and the elephant could possibly be related.  Yet when they bare their long pointed incisors (which do look a lot like tusks) one can possibly see the connection a little more clearly. Surely there must be more to it than that?

So how exactly are they related to the elephant and indeed the sea cow? The order makes its first entry in to fossil record an astonishing 37 million years ago.  Some were tiny, mouse sized creatures.  Others grew to be the size of a small horse.  These giant hyracoids evolved in a number of different ways.

It is thought that some species took to the water and that this gave rise to both the elephant and the sirenian species, such as the manatee and the dugong. They share a number of traits with elephants still.  They have toenails and thin-skinned pads on their feet.  Like their large eared relatives they also have excellent hearing – and a good memory!

Another feature that they share with both elephants and the sea cow is that their testes are internal – permanently resident in the abdomen. They also live in herds with a very well defined social structure.  Up to 80 hyrax live together in a herd yet this is divided in to smaller flocks which ensures that more than one male can hold sway in a herd.

These smaller flocks are usually made up of around 15 adult females (all of which are related) and a single male together with any offspring.  The male marks his territory out using something unique to the rock hyrax – a dorsal gland.  This ensures that each male within a herd knows exactly where he can and cannot venture. The herd is together for safety from other creatures, but boundaries within are clearly delineated for the safety of the species itself.

They have plenty of predators to watch out for in Africa at least (their sentry system is reportedly so successful in Israel that they are hardly ever predated by larger animals). Their enemies number a number of species of snakes not to mention eagles, leopards and caracals.

Although the hyrax is largely a herbivore it has also been seen to eat small insects.  Mostly, however, it eats broad leafed plants and a variety of grasses. It also has another surprise up its sleeve – despite its less than gymnastic frame it is a good climber and will often take to the trees in order to make a meal of its tasty foliage, citrus being a favorite.

They might not win any medals in an Animal Olympics but they occasionally look as if they could be contenders!

We do not seem to be a species of which the rock hyrax is particularly afraid and it will often join tourists for a lounge by the pool....

...and don't go rummaging around in the bin - that job's already taken.

As a result of their moist diet the rock hyrax can go without water for several days.  This is just as well as their predators, such as the puff adder and the Egyptian cobra are known for their patience. They are more than prepared to play the waiting game, remaining in the area for a potential meal to reappear from the crevice in to which it has scurried to hide.

What does a rock hyrax like best?  Sun bathing is the simple answer.  An average hyrax will spend 95% of its time resting and where better than a sunny ledge with one of the family standing guard? Anywhere a rock hyrax can extend the length of its body is considered suitable. They never stray more than 50 meters from their sanctuary so with a high warning trill from a family member they can be safe (after a lightning scamper) in seconds.

Image Credit 1st Image - Eli Brody

A Boy and his Sheep

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Whoever said a boy’s best friend was his dog may have gotten it wrong! In this case it might just be a sheep.  However, we suspect that this young Afghan boy might have a barbecue on his mind rather than a lifelong friendship, which might explain the rather resigned look on the sheep’s face!

Image Credit Flickr User peretzp

Welcome to Flamingo City

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Each year the lakes of Kenya play host to one of the world’s largest populations of flamingos. For a short period the area around a group of lakes is awash with pink as millions of lesser flamingos fly in to breed and one of the world's most spectacular displays takes place.

There is safety in numbers, of course. It ensure the survival of the many. So each year Flamingo City forms, crowded, noisy and sometimes tempers can flare.  Yet why do these remarkable birds flock here in such huge numbers?

Some of these lakes, Lake Bogoria in particular, have formed along the Rift Valley. The lakes, among them Nakuru and Elementeita do not have significant drainage in to rivers. This means that the forces of evaporation are concentrated on them and this causes the water to become brackish and alkaline.

This has, of course, an adverse effect on aquatic life and you may then be wondering what on earth the flamingos eat. The answer is algae, the growth of which is encouraged by the shallow depth of the water and the powerful sunlight beaming down upon it.

The lesser flamingo loves to eat this blue-green algae and it is virtually alone in its taste for this rich harvest. That means that, without competition, they arrive in huge numbers. Some are predated by hyenas but Lake Bogoria can be temporary home to over one hundred thousand of them.

Volcanic geysers and fumaroles spit out sulfurous gases into the air which gives the place an other worldly feel. Once can hardly imagine life scraping by here, let alone thriving. Yet only a small distance away life defies all obstacles and flourishes in a mass of pink exuberance!

Image Credit
First picture - Image Credit Flickr User Rainbirder

Too Much Walking

There is a certain time in a day when you just have to give up and have a rest, especially when all you have done is plod around! Sometimes there is such a thing as being too dog tired to do anything else!

How Spiders Escaped the Pakistani Floods

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

When the floods hit Pakistan in 2010 the first thing that many people did was to head for higher ground. So too did countless millions of animals, among them spiders.  To escape the rapidly rising waters the spiders did the sensible thing and climbed up trees.

The flood waters took quite a while to recede. The result was that the temporary arachnid shelter became semi-permanent – and a spider has to do what a spider has to do...

The local people of the Sindh province had never seen this sort of animal behaviour before.  Yet there was an unexpected – and welcome – result.  Even though there were thousands of pools of stagnant water left after the floods there were rather less mosquitoes than you might expect.

It seems that the spiders didn’t go hungry after all...

Pictures courtesy of the UK Department of International Development on Flickr

Amung Feedjit