As their name suggests, Rock Dassies are closely associated with rocky habitats, be it mountains, hills, cliffs, ditches, canyons, gorges or just plain heaps of boulders – as long as there is rocks with caves and crevices to hide in, a sufficient supply of food, and a place where they can soak up the sun, Rock Dassies can be found from deserts to forests and from sea level to mountain tops, and even in city suburbs. Rock Dassies are entirely independent of drinking water, and feed on a wide variety of plantmaterial; grass, leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, twigs, roots, bulbs, herbs, and even poisonous plants that would kill other animals are all included in their diet.
Adult Rock Dassies are about 20 – 30cm high and weigh anywhere from 2 to 5.5kg, males being a little larger than the females. Notwithstanding their relatively small size, hyraxes are the closest living relative of elephants!
Rock Dassies live in colonies, usually numbering around 30 but up to 100 or more under favourable conditions, consisting of a dominant, territorial male and a harem of females and their young. Females also have a strict hierarchy and will fight viciously to maintain their place in the rank. Dassies are diurnal, and start their day basking on an exposed rock in the early morning sun. They’re rather lazy and spend only about two hours a day feeding, mostly in the morning and afternoon. While feeding they sometimes move a few hundred meters from their rocky abodes. At night and during the heat of the day they rest in caves and crevices among the rocks. Rock Dassies are excellent climbers, both of rocks and trees, are rather quarrelsome and downright aggressive amongst themselves, have very keen senses and have the remarkable ability to look straight into the sun without any apparent ill effect – a handy adaptation to detect their biggest natural enemy; the Verreaux’s Eagle. While the colony is feeding, one individual is always on guard for the eagles and other predators like leopard, caracal, jackal and other raptors. They’re also persecuted as a pest by many farmers, especially those with small stock. Rock Dassies seldom live past the age of 8 years in the wild, though they can get up to 15 years old in captivity.
Females give birth to between 1 and 6 babies at the end of the rainy season, after a gestation of almost 8 months – unusually long for such a small animal. The babies are weaned between 3 and 5 months after birth, and young males are driven from the colony when they’re about a year old.
Rock Dassies occur widely, if discontinuously due to its habitat requirements, over Africa (including parts of the Sahara) and much of the Middle East. Owing to its exceptionally wide distribution and overall large, stable populations, many of which in well protected conservation areas, and despite hunting pressure in some parts of its range, the IUCN lists the Rock Hyrax as being of least concern. in South Africa they can be found in all provinces, wherever their preferred habitat is available.
A related species with a more restricted distribution in South Africa, the Yellow-spotted Rock Hyrax, will be discussed in an upcoming post on de Wets Wild