After breakfast The Family pointed out a friendly looking, gregarious seemingly rodent-like creature on the rocks around the lodge. It turned out to be a rock hyrax (Procavia capensis). As I photographed them, I noticed I was not the only one at it. I exchanged a few pleasant words with other photographers shooting this cute family lying piled up on top of each other, or running around rock piles chasing each other.
The more I read about it, the more interesting it began to look. It seems that in the late Cretaceous period the lineage which gave rise to hyraxes diverged from that which eventually led to elephants. Since all other relatives of both these small groups of species have died out, the cute highly social chaps I photographed are among the closest living cousins of elephants. It seems that in the middle Eocene epoch many kinds of Hyraxes existed within the African ecosystem of that time: some as large as topi and horses, others as small as mice. They lost out to the newly emergent bovids, which are now the dominant herbivores in the African landscape.
A horrid, creaking noise rose not far from us, and made me shiver. It was repeated more and more shrill, rising in a crescendo and breaking up abruptly in a gargling cry as though someone was being strangled. We listened aghast.
—No Picnic on Mount Kenya, by Felice Benuzzi
I wouldn’t have paid more attention to the rock hyrax if I hadn’t come across this description of a call of a hyrax in Benuzzi’s book about how he and his comnpanions went AWOL from a POW camp in Kenya to climb Mount Kenya. The sound was a good description of a punctuation I’d heard between roars of lions at night, and put down to the last cries of prey. Now searching the web for recordings of the call of the rock hyrax, I found some which fit what I’d heard. An more surprisingly, it seems that hyrax calls possess a syntax. So they socialize, have a grammar for communications, are related to elephants, have the complex stomachs of a herbivore, and spend most of the day sleeping in the sun in a heap of companions. How much more interesting can they be?