Everybody loves a dassie. Most of us would be delighted to have one on our stoep. Dassies are also called rock hyraxes or Procavia (‘before rodent’) capensis (‘of the Cape’). We love the photographs of people feeding them at Gearing’s Point, even though we know it’s wrong to feed any wild animal. Is it because they are round and furry, or because we know what fascinating creatures they are?
Is it because we can hardly believe the assertions that the closest relative to a dassie is an elephant? Indeed, despite the enormous difference in size between the two, research has claimed the dassie is the African Elephant’s closest living relative. To understand this, we have to look back in time. A 60 million-year-old skull dug up in Morocco has been identified as the earliest form of elephant species – and a common ancestor of the dassie.
This creature did not have a trunk, measured less than 50 cm from tip to tail and weighed just 5 kg, much the size of a modern dassie. It had front incisors which jutted out of its mouth to form the forerunner of modern tusks. Analysis of the teeth in the skull proved it was related, however distantly, to the modern elephant. The dassie has two upper incisor teeth which, like the elephant’s, grow for life. In males these are triangular (those of females are rounded) and very sharp. So don’t be fooled by its cuddly looks into trying to pet one.
Besides the tusk-like incisors, there is other evidence that the rock dassie is closely related to elephants. They also share a protracted gestation period and the structure of their feet is similar.
As early as 1798, hyraxes were grouped with elephants based on these similarities in their skulls and feet. The soles of a dassie’s feet are soft and rubbery and are kept moist by glandular tissue which assists them with their grip as they move around the smooth rocks. They are also capable of retracting the centre portion of their feet into a concave dome, which creates “suction cups” to aid their climbing ability on slippery rocks.
We now know that dassies and elephants also have common gene sequences and that they share eye-lens proteins as well as certain amino acid sequences in their blood haemoglobin. So the strange links are becoming more convincing.
Dassies’ social structure is remarkably like that of elephants. Their close-knit colonies comprise several related females and their young. When young males reach maturity, the dominant male forces them out to seek new territory. Male conflict over females is surprisingly aggressive, especially in the mating season when the size of the males’ internal testes (a feature shared with elephants) increases twenty-fold, presumably matched by increased testosterone levels.
Dassies typically live in groups of 10 – 30 animals, and forage as a group. Their most striking behaviour is the use of sentries: one or more animals take up position on a vantage point and issue alarm calls on the approach of predators. On hearing the alarm they will all swiftly disappear into rock crevices.
Dassies are the favourite food of many predators such as Caracal, Leopard and Black Eagles. To keep a beady eye on the sky for these predators from above, dassies have evolved a moveable membrane in the eye which shields the pupil and allows vision directly into the sun. So dassies are able to keep watch for any attack “out of the sun”.
Dassies appear to be very lazy creatures. We most often see them lying on a rock, basking in the sun, especially in the mornings and late afternoons. They aren’t, however, just lazy creatures – their inactivity allows them to thrive in harsh environments. Dassies are in fact one of the few herbivores that are tough enough to survive on a diet of fynbos. Foraging for short periods throughout the day, dassies rest for extended periods of time to allow this rather tough food source to slowly ferment in a bacteria-filled sac which is part of their digestive system and aids digestion.
This is not the only reason why we see dassies “chilling out”. They are highly efficient at conserving energy, which also allows them to survive in these unforgiving environments. One such energy-saving tactic is to allow their body temperature to drop by a few degrees at night. They then sunbathe in the morning to warm up again, ensuring that they have enough energy for the day ahead. At night they all heap together in their rock crevices to keep warm.
Dassies have the habit of using the same dung heap for generation after generation. Some of these dung heaps are over 40 000 years old and can be as tall as 70 cm or more. Dassie urine is a valuable commodity. It is used in the production of traditional medicine and even perfume. But it has another much more valuable use – as a research tool that contains invaluable scientific information.
Pollen from various plants is captured in the dung heaps over centuries, which provides a glimpse into the area’s vegetation history and how that has changed. According to researchers, “It’s almost like looking into a time capsule. It gives you a record of the climate and the vegetation, since it’s basically a soup made of remnants from that time period.”
Who would have thought that the most valuable thing about a dassie is its toilet?
About the Author
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