African elephants (Loxodonta africana) aren’t usually considered an urban wildlife species but I’d come a long way and wanted to see them while I was in South Africa. The built environment just doesn’t have the amenities Earth’s largest living terrestrial mammal needs to feel at home. Africa’s elephants prefer dense forests, woodlands, deserts, and even the transition zones between these biomes to urban canyons and suburban savannah. Lucky for me, this study abroad excursion included several days at the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
I also had the good luck to meet some relatives of the elephant while in Cape Town. The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) has found it much easier to adapt to city living than its country cousin. I suppose concrete looks pretty familiar when boulders are your preferred abode. It also helps when you look much less threatening to the human neighbors throughout the hyrax’s Middle Eastern, sub-Saharan, and southern African range than their towering relatives.
Up on Table Mountain, which overlooks the city, hyraxes were everywhere: scampering along the pathways, basking on benches, happily whistling to one another, and enjoying the sunset from rocky precipices. Ignoring humans while living alongside them can be a good survival strategy for urban wildlife, and the hyraxes showed little interest in the two-footed visitors… unless some tourist with a camera decided to force the issue. Attempts to get the affable-looking creatures to pose were met with low “bug off!” grunts.
The family resemblance certainly isn’t obvious at first sight but keep in mind that the genealogical tree branched out millions of years ago. Let’s start with stature: adult elephants stand 10-13 ft (3-4 m) tall at the shoulder and may weigh over 8 tons, while an adult hyrax measures up at about 8-12 in (20-30 cm) and tips the scales at a whopping 8-9 lbs (4 kg).
Elephants have very little hair while hyraxes are covered in short taupe fur and long guard hairs that function like a cat’s whiskers. With their small round ears it’s easy to see how they could be mistaken for a large guinea pig (rodent) or pika (cousin to rabbits and hares). Maybe that’s why they have so many aliases; in South Africa they are called dassie (Dutch for badger) or klipdas (Afrikaans for rock badger), Swahili speakers know them as pimbi, and in the King James Bible they’re referred to as coney (Middle English and Anglo-French). Even “hyrax” is misleading, originating from the Greek word “hyrak” or shrewmouse.
Taxonomists know you shouldn’t judge a book, or a beast, by it’s cover. Look beneath the binding and you’ll find a different tail. Make that tale. For example:
- Hyraxes don’t have trunks but they do have small pointed tusks and can deliver a ferocious bite when cornered.
- Like elephants, hyraxes have flat, hoof-like toenails rather than curved claws.
- Both are social mammals; elephants live in herds of up to 100 individuals, hyrax colonies can have up to 50 members.
- Both have long gestation periods (22 months for elephants, 7-8 months for hyraxes) and offspring are slow to reach maturity.
- Elephant and hyrax newborns are precocial, relatively mature and mobile shortly after birth.
- Both species employ cooperative care for raising young. Elephant calves are tended from birth by both their mothers and other females in the herd; and hyrax pups are greeted and sniffed by the entire colony the day after they’re born.
- Females stay with the group their entire life; males disperse.
- Male elephants and hyraxes don’t have a scrotum; their testes remain in the abdomen even after sexual maturity.
The differences between elephants and hyraxes are more than skin deep, too.
- Elephants must drink up to 50 gallons of water per day; rock hyraxes can survive for long periods on just the water they obtain through their food (although they dehydrate quickly in direct sunlight).
- Neither animal is a ruminant, but hyraxes have a complex three-chambered stomach; elephants have a simpler but less efficient digestive system.
- Hyrax stomaches are filled with symbiotic bacteria that help break down plant material; elephants have to consume up to 300 lbs of food per day, in part because they aren’t able to extract much nutritional value from what they eat.
- An elephant spends a good portion of each day filling its stomach with food and water; rock hyraxes are world-class loafers who are inactive 95% of the time.
- Hyraxes have poorly developed thermoregulation compared to other mammals so they need to sunbathe for several hours each morning to warm up and won’t venture out of their shelters on cold or rainy days. Elephants have to work at staying cool; they don’t sweat or pant but their large ears help to dissipate heat and they’ve developed a temperature regulation strategy that involves storing heat during the day and releasing it at night, similar to camels and desert rodents.
- Elephants have a sixth “toe” and their feet have large subcutaneous cushions that distribute weight and absorb mechanical forces; hyraxes have a more flexible foot with a rubbery pad in the center that can be raised to create a suction-cup for clinging to rocks and moving across slick surfaces without slipping.
- African elephants have no natural predators as adults (they have a decided size advantage) but their calves are vulnerable to attack by lions, crocodiles, leopards, and hyenas. Hyraxes have many predators and, as such, they feed in a circle formation, heads facing outward, eyes scanning for danger.
I’m told that most tourists who have a safari on their bucket list focus on the iconic African Big Five — elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. I’d be the first to agree they’re all worth seeing in their natural environment, with no bars or moats to limit your view. Or theirs.
But I find celebrity tours less interesting than exploring on my own. I like to switch to hyrax-time, wander through neighborhood, sit at a sidewalk cafe or bask on a park bench and watch the residents, human and non-human alike, go about their day. Taking note of what makes us different and all the ways we’re related, despite the distance.
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