How about back when giant ground sloths pottered in your garden, or a Tyrannosaurus bedded down where your house now stands?
It’s only a blink ago, in geological time.
Of course we tend to forget that hopping and squeaking, right outside our doors, are the direct descendents of those monstrous beasts.
|Photo posted on Flickr by kibuyu.|
Back in those days, Africa’s principal veggie-eaters came from an entirely different family; creatures whose great grand-pappy also sired the mastodons and mammoths. These herbivores stomped and frolicked in a carnival of diversity, ranging from diminutive mouse-like critters to rhino-sized brutes; some slick and fleet of foot, others dumpy and lumbering.
So who were these creatures?
Yep, that’s right, good ol’ dassies.
|Small human shown for scale.|
Photo (taken on the Cape Peninsula) by Danie van der Merwe.
Possibly because of this fall from grace, rock hyraxes are obstreperous little beasts. Although they live in colonies of up to 35 animals (one macho male with a harem of sisters, daughters and aunts), social relations are strained. Look closely at a mob of hyraxes basking atop a rocky outcrop and you’ll notice that they never sit facing one another; they fan out like iron-filings around a magnet.
When they bounce down off the rocks to graze as a herd (harvesting a different section of their range each day) they also arrange themselves like this. And when a hyrax wants to join a huddle or enter a crevice, it reverses in backwards.
|Weapons of dassie destruction.|
Fights (mostly between males) can be fatal
due to the hyrax's tusks.
Photo by Brian Burger.
|Baby hyraxes are born in summer (all the girls in a colony give birth syncronously). They immediately clamber up on to Mum's dorsal gland: their favourite hang-out spot for the next five months.|
Photo by Paul Genge
|A teat of one's one. Infant hyraxes divy up Mum's nipples, remaining faithful to their chosen teat/s for the entire 3-5 month suckling period.|
Thanks to the tenacity of this weird little animal (it's only got three hind toes: i.e. proof of weirdness) we can begin to imagine the bygone fauna of Africa. But it’s actually one of the rock hyraxes more mundane habits that’s proven most helpful to our understanding of the past.
Like all sensible creatures, rock hyraxes deposit their poop in latrines. Their toilet facilities are conveniently located close to the colony’s sleeping quarters (usually beneath a rock overhang) and are used, unswervingly, for centuries. The hyraxes not only poop here, they merrily splash pee over the rocks, and when the calcium carbonate in the urine crystallises, it not only creates tell-tale white stains, it cements the droppings in place. Protected from the weather, these piles of poop provide an amazing, stratified compilation of the past.
|A pile of poop or an|
invaluable historical record?
|Reparation. "This picnic is mine!" |
Photo by Tim Parkinson.