Hyrax

HyraxHyrax — A hyrax is any of four species of fairly small, thickset, herbivorous mammals in the order Hyracoidea. They live in Africa and the Middle East.

Hyraxes are well-furred rotund creatures with a mere stump for a tail. They are about the size of a Corgi; most measure between about 30 and 70 cm long and weigh between 2 and 5 kg. From a distance, a hyrax could be mistaken for a very well-fed rabbit or guinea pig.

Hyraxes retain a number of early mammal characteristics; in particular they have poorly developed internal temperature regulation (which they deal with by huddling together for warmth, and by basking in the sun like reptiles). Unlike other browsing and grazing animals, they do not use the incisors at the front of the jaw for slicing off leaves and grass, and use the molar teeth at the side of the jaw instead. The incisors are none the less large, and grow continuously through life, in a similar manner to those of rodents. There is a short diastema between the incisors and the cheek teeth.

Hyraxes are sometimes described as the closest living relative of the elephant. This is because they may share an ancestor in the distant past when hyraxes were larger and more diverse. However, the details of their relationship remain open to debate.

All modern hyraxes are members of the family Procaviidae (the only living family within the Hyracoidea) and are found only in Africa and the Middle East. In the past, however, hyraxes were more diverse and widespread. The order first appears in the fossil record over 40 million years ago, and for many millions of years hyraxes were the primary terrestrial herbivore in Africa, just as odd-toed ungulates were in the Americas. There were many different species, the largest of them about the weight of a small horse, the smallest the size of a mouse. During the Miocene, however, competition from the newly-developed bovids—very efficient grazers and browsers—pushed the hyraxes out of the prime territory and into marginal niches. Nevertheless, the order remained widespread, diverse and successful as late as the end of the Pliocene (about two million years ago) with representatives throughout most of Africa, Europe and Asia.

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