Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Dassie Story

Let me introduce myself: I'm Dassie, a Rock Hyrax. You might think that I look like a rabbit, but please, take a closer look - do my small rounded ears really remind you of a rabbit? And although you can't see it in this photo, dassies don't have (external) tails! As you CAN see, I'm a grazer, in contrast to my cousin, the Bush or Tree Dassie, which is known as a browser: it survives on nutrition derived from foliage. We "crop" vegetation with the sides of our mouths whilst using our molars, instead of the incisors, as most other mammals do.

A dassie's habitat is any rocky area in mountain ranges or isolated outcrops, and we are widely distributed throughout South Africa - we certainly frequent the coastal areas (left) i.e. we LOVE the Tsitsikamma Region.

Back to our relatives: believe it or not and although we look like rodents, our evolutionary relationship is CLOSEST to the elephant (and the dugong). Our name is derived from the Dutch dasje (= bager), so please, don't call us rock-rabbits!

Check out those 2 upper-front incisors (left)! Don't you think they resemble tusks? I did mention that we are related to the elephant, right? By looking more closely at these 2 sharp teeth (watch out!!), you can tell my bru (= SA slang for 'brother') is a male: a male's incisor teeth are triangular in shape whilst a female's are rounded.

Look at my cute little siblings (right) - we are all part of a large colony (up to 50 dassies tend to associate together), in contrast to the Tree dassie, which tends to associate in pairs. You can tell us apart by our "coats": Rock dassies are covered by yellow-grey to dark-brown hair with lighter underparts, whilst a Tree dassie has longer and more woolly hair. Another difference is that rock dassies are nocturnal whilst we love sunbathing!

Talking about the sun: we have a low metabolic rate and a poor ability to regulate body temperature. To compensate for that, we only become active after sunrise, when we tend to bask in the sun before moving off to feed. At night, we all huddle close together to keep each other warm in our shelters - to conserve warmth/energy.

After a lengthy pregnancy (= gestation period) of up to 240 days (again, compare that with the elephant!), our young are born fully haired and with their eyes open so that we look like perfect "miniatures" of our parents. Although like all mammals we do suckle milk from our mothers, we are able to move about and eat vegetation soon after birth. The other day, I overheard a human say that my little cousin (above) looks just like a hedgehog - can you believe that?

Talking about "looks" - I also overheard the woman, who took this photo (left), comment that this dassie specimen looked to her like a little koala bear! Weird, these humans! I wonder if they are aware that unlike them, we don't need to consume regular intakes of water? Because our diet consists of plenty succulent food (grass, shrubs and succulent leaves), we can survive on the nutrition (fluid) derived from that or occasionally, sip some water from small pools in rocks.

As I've explained just now, humans make weird comparisons but have an even weirder way of saying things. Like this little fellow (left) prettily posing for a photo. Guess what the female photographer said in response? "Ag, shame!" Now I would have understood if she had said: "How cute!" but no, it was "ag, shame".

Footnote: the photographer explained "nicely" to me that "ag shame" broadly denotes a sympathetic feeling + that someone admiring a baby might say that to emphasize its cuteness!!

By way of closing off, I wish to remind the human race how dependent they are on our ......... urine! Yes, you heard me right.

Did you know that hardened dassie urine (known as hyraceum) is highly sought after by perfume makers - to give an animal-like "note" to fragrances?

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