You may have already seen my post about the problems caused by feeding wildlife. If not, check it out. Next, I want to tell you a little bit about dassies and maybe show you why they intrigued me so much. Obviously, they're adorable. That's the first thing you think: IT'S SO FLUFFY I'M GONNA DIE! But during my second stint in SA, I met a biologist who was studying dassies and after an hour of brain-picking, the dassie became one of the most interesting animals I've ever known!
What's in a name? A lot, apparently.
Dassie isn't their official name. It is an Afrikaans name – from "das" which is Dutch for "badger" – so it's how they were referred to while I was there, and I like it better than it's English name: the rock hyrax. The name hyrax comes from hurax, the Greek word for "shrewmouse." However, dassies aren't related to either of those animals. Not even closely.
First of all, dassies are placed within their own scientific order of classification: Hyracoidea, "resembling" hyraxes. The four sole living species of hyrax (2 rock hyrax, 2 tree hyrax) make up the family Procaviidae, "pro-" meaning before and "Caviidae" is the family for guinea pigs. Even that name is misleading, because the dassie's closest living relatives are ...... wait for it ..... elephants and manatees. Once your head stops hurting let me explain. The common ancestor of these animals lived around 37 million years ago, but through ongoing molecular research they remain more closely related to each other than to any other living animals.
There are many biological similarities that eventually led scientists to put them together – toenails, padded feet, internal testes – but the biologist I spoke with told me one of the strangest aspects of a dassie's biology: the gestation period can be up to eight months! For an animal that size, that is a huge amount of time in comparison to cats (around 2 months), rabbits (1), pigs (4); even lions gestate for only 3-4 months. That tipped scientists off that the hyrax or its ancestors used to be far bigger.
Living on the edge
Dassies (specifically the rock hyrax, rather than the tree hyrax) live in rocky places with vegetation only in Africa and the Middle East. They live in colonies of up to 100 dassies, separated by families that consist of one alpha male and what is often described as a "harem" of females, and the offspring they have together. A dassie is weaned within the first month, and they are sexually mature within a year and a half. Baby dassies have to learn how to climb very quickly after birth. Dassie mothers are not very attentive, and colonies usually live on the edge of cliffs and rocky mountains. There are special sweat glands on the pads of their feet that give them great traction, and a healthy dassie can climb a nearly vertical surface. As you can tell from the picture above, they tend to find solitary places that are hard to get to.
Most members of a family will have a designated shelter, usually a hole or small cave. The area around each humble abode is used as the entire family's communal latrine, which helps the other families know whose territory they're near. Makes sense, I wouldn't go to someone else's house either if there was poop laying everywhere. This behavior, however, has allowed scientists to study climate changes from up to 55,000 years ago, according to the Guardian.
Talk, talk, talk
Besides all that crap (couldn't resist), researchers have recently discovered that dassies have their own kind of language. That's what the biologist I met was in the middle of studying. Dassies have up to 30 distinct noises – chirps, wails, squeaks, etc. – and sing songs for communication and wooing a mate that can last for minutes. Patterns started to emerge within the songs, sections that can last up to 30 seconds, and the order in which they made different noises became distinct signifying a syntax. Furthermore, the syntax took on different characteristics in different areas, like an accent. This places them in a very, very small group of mammals with highly organized communication skills like primates, whales, dolphins, prairie dogs, and of course, humans. For something so small and innocuous, dassies have lots of interesting hidden facts!