The dassies are the most abundant, the commoners, the commuters, the bourgeois. They are marvellously equipped for the kind of life they lead.
About half a metre long, the dassie or hyrax is like a mini-hippo – plumply compact on short stubby legs. It has a rounded butt and no tail. Round ears sit above a squarish face with a wide mouth clearly designed to take large loads, like the back of a furniture van, topped by a straight pale moustache.
It is in a class of its own, the order Hyracoidea, and there are several kinds, the others living in forest or desert. Ours, the rock dassie or “rock rabbit” is the commonest. The name “dassie” is a misnomer: when the first Dutch settlers in the Cape saw them nearly four centuries ago they searched in bewilderment for a suitable name and eventually settled on that for the European badger, a “das”, and it has stuck ever since.
It has an entrancing ancestry, more so than that of homo sapiens. It is a unique species, there is nothing else like it on earth. Its nearest relatives are the elephant, dugong and manatee – creatures so different today the connection seems impossible. But the relationship goes back to somewhere between fifteen million and nine million years ago. The oldest dassie fossil is about three times the size of its descendant.
Like the elephant and dugong, evolution has equipped the dassie with some unique features. Added to its stomach are a couple of pieces of digestive equipment that turn it into a fermentation tank to help it to cope with what it swallows, which is very nearly anything vegetable. It has powerful cutting teeth, top and bottom, to whose sharpness I can personally testify.
It has four toes on the front feet and three on the back and all dassies have on the inner toes of their hind feet a very handy gadget: long nails which they use to scratch themselves: nature’s defence against fleas and ticks.
Probably the dassie’s most useful asset, because it has no weapons, is its feet. The thick-skinned soles exude moisture which greatly improves its grip and enables it to skitter acrobatically up steps, smooth stone surfaces or tree trunks. Some other animals have similar talents, like the agile klipspringer and the gecko. Added to this is are hindquarter muscles so strong it can jump to a height of about four times its own length.
To be continued next Friday 8 August …