An extraordinary animal from Africa

Let us tell you about an animal that Gutek met and photographed in South Africa!

Rock hyrax or cape hyrax (Procavia capensis) is a mammal of Procaviidae family inhabiting the African Continent, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East up to Turkey. It is a sedentary animal, and, like all hyraxes, it resembles a guinea pig. However, it is much bigger than a guinea pig; an adult specimen is 40-60 cm high. It has a small tail and short ears. It lives in herds of up to 26 animals (called colonies). Though it does not burrow, it does use the burrows dug by other animals, such as ant bears or meerkats. 

The cape hyrax is an exceptional animal, not least because of its anatomical structure. Zoologists compare the general build of the cape hyrax to the build of an elephant or a horse. The cape hyrax’s brain and tusks are similar to those of an elephant. What is more, cape hyraxes, just like elephants, have an excellent memory. Their stomach has a similar structure to a horse’s stomach, while the structure of their hind legs is similar to tapir’s. Their upper incisor teeth resemble rodent incisors. The upper teeth are like those of a rhinoceros, while the lower ones resemble the teeth of a hippopotamus.

Cape hyraxes and medicine

Cape hyraxes, like other animals of Procavia genus, produce large quantities of a substance called hyraceum, which is piled around their habitats (it is a mixture of dung and urine). The animals probably do this because of its olfactory properties. Hyraceum has an effect similar to a pheromone[1], and hence serves a social function. It is also used to mark the territory occupied by the herd. For thousands of years the inhabitants of Africa and Middle East have used hyraceum as an antidote for treating epilepsy, convulsions, and women's hormonal disorders. It was also believed that hyraceum counteracted the effects of viper venom.

Cape hyraxes and science

In order to examine the environmental changes that occurred in the past, scientists usually take samples from deposits that have accumulated at the bottom of bogs or lakes, where datable organic matter has been preserved. This, however, is not viable in dry environments like that found in southern Africa. Fortunately the cape hyrax’s urine preserves organic matter for tens of thousands of years, which provides an extraordinary insight into environmental changes that took place in the past within the hyrax’s habitat.

A team of scientists from the University of Leicester discovered unique organic molecules preserved in middens[2], including chemical compounds produced in the animals’ metabolic system and molecules of plant origin, which had gone through the hyrax’s digestive system.

According to the scientists, “biomarkers” discovered there helped shed light on the type of food eaten by these herbivores and hence also on the environment in which the hyrax used to live. It enabled the team to solve the mystery of climate change in the region during the last 30,000 years by allowing precise dating, ranging from several decades to centuries.


1.  S. Jansa: Procavia capensis (on-line), Animal Diversity Web, 1999

2.  University of Leicester Journal



[1] Pheromones are volatile chemical substances secreted by living organisms. They are the basis of olfactory communication. Members of the same species communicate though the use of pheromones in order to exchange information. In the animal world a male is able to find a partner over distances of more than several kilometres. These chemical substances, produced in youth, are mating triggers during the nuptial period. Humans also produce pheromones, typical to our species.

[2] Stratified accumulations in which hyrax’s urine crystallizes.