Procavia capensis (Rock hyrax, Dassie)

rock dassie, rock rabbit [English]; klipdas, klipdassie [Afrikaans]; Klippschliefer [German]; daman de rocher [French]; pimbe [Swahili]; imbila [isiNdebele] [isiXhosa] [isiZulu] [siSwati]; pela, thobela, thewbela [Sepedi]; pela [Sesotho] [Setswana]; mbila [Shona] [Xitsonga] [Tshivenda]; !Aus [Nama] [Damara]

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Procavia capensis (Rock hyrax, Dassie)

A group of Dassies at Ventersburg, Free State, South Africa. [photo Gerhard Theron ]

Procavia capensis (Rock hyrax, Dassie)

Rock hyrax, Tanqua Karoo National Park, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo Johan van Rensburg ]

Identification

The Dassie is small and stoutly built with short legs and a short rudimentary stump for a tail. In spite of its small rounded ears it has the appearance of a rabbit. A patch of black hair overlies a glandular area in the middle of the back. The feet are short and have rubbery pads with many sweat glands underneath. The sweat glands are important both for heat loss and provide the soles of the feet with remarkable traction on the rock surfaces.

Although dassies look like rodents their evolutionary relationships are closest to the elephant and the dugong.

Size

Body Length 45 - 60 cm; weight range 2.5 - 4.6 kg

Dentition

Dassies crop vegetation with the sides of their mouths, using their molars instead of the incisors as most mammals do. Their dentition is unusual. The 2 upper incisors resemble a short tusk-like canine. The shape of this canine in cross-section is sexually dimorphic, males have a triangular cross-section and females are more rounded in shape. There are 4 lower incisors.

Dental Formula:

 I C  P M = 32

Distribution and habitat

Widely distributed in South Africa, preferring rocky areas in mountain ranges and isolated outcrops.

General behaviour

Dassies have a poor ability to regulate their body temperature and a low metabolic rate. They become active after sunrise and usually bask in the sun for some time before moving off to feed. During cooler periods and at night groups are seen to huddle together to keep each other warm. Rock hyraxes spend a lot of time crouching motionless on rocks and seemingly staring directly into the sun. This important for survival as birds of prey often attack directly out of the sun. The dassie has a special membrane (umbraculum) that shades the pupil of the eye.

Dassies have minimal water requirements and can get their water from the vegetation in their diet or from pools in the rocks. In addition, they can concentrate urea and electrolytes and excrete large amounts of undissolved calcium carbonate. Dassies have latrines, where they deposit their droppings and urine at a fixed site. The crystallized calcium carbonate forms white deposits on the rock surfaces. These crystals, known as “dassie piss” were believed to have medicinal properties and were used by indigenous tribes and Europeans.

Food

They eat a wide range of plants and are both grazers and browsers.

Reproduction

  • After a gestation period of 210 to 240 days, lengthy for a small mammal, the young are born fully haired with their eyes open and look like perfect miniatures of the adult. Although like all mammals they do suckle milk from their mothers they are able to move about and eat vegetation soon after birth.

Life span

10-12 years

Conservation

While not currently listed as threatened dassies are threatened by habitat loss and disturbance from agriculture and urban encroachment. They are hunted by a variety of predators, including leopard, caracal, black eagles and others. Dassie skins are extremely tough and are sought after by hunters, who use them to make long – lasting rugs (kaross).

Publications

  • Deschodt, C., Kryger, U., Scholtz, C.H. 2007. New taxa of relictual Canthonini dung beetles (Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) utilizing rock hyrax middens as refuges in south-western Africa. Insect Systematics and Evolution. 38:361-376.

 


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