Sunday, November 28, 2010

Creature Feature: Hyrax.

This is a hyrax. A hyrax (family Hyracoidea) is a small, furry mammal native to Africa and the Middle East. It roughly resembles a guinea pig or rabbit in niche, and is often translated as "rabbit" or "hare" in old English translations of the Bible. You thought rabbits were everywhere?  The Phoenicians did not have bunnies, but they had hyraxes.

Hyraxes are pretty weird for little furry herbivores. Like naked mole rats and a few other primitive mammals, they have trouble regulating their body temperatures. They huddle together and sunbathe for warmth. Hyraxes do not have long incisors like rodents, instead utilizing their molars to grind plants, but their teeth do grow throughout their lives.

Pop quiz: Name one of the hyrax's closest living relatives. (Hint: Look at the toes.)

Did you guess a mouse? A shrew? A shrew-mouse (the literal translation of this creature's name)? Wrong. So very wrong:

If you are wondering how the hell a furry little creature like the hyrax can be related to the biggest land animal on Earth, many of the mammals in Africa - probably the continent most flaunted on the Discovery Channel and in zoos - all originated from one tiny group of mammals. For those of you that followed me during Madagascar Week, you probably remember this picture in the tenrec entry:

Afrotherians. Not mammals with afros.

The hyrax has a similar situation to the tenrec, but takes it one step closer to penultimate weirdness. The hyrax, along with elephants, manatees, and two more extinct groups, make up the clade Paenungulata ("almost hoofed").  Although it did not take intense genetic testing to prove this relationship (it was speculated since the 1920's...somehow), it sure helps remove the sheer WTF at this connection. If you look at the toes, you can also see the relationship if a few transitional species went missing. Would you believe that there was dental evidence to support this, too? (Told you that was important for mammals.)

If a hyrax tells you to let him go for being a cute, cuddly furball, listen. He might just call over his elephant of a cousin to squish you into a pancake. Nature works in mysterious ways. (Hell, part of the reason hyraxes ended up like they did was the evolution of bovids. Unrelated family, by the way.)

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