A hyrax is a mammal from the order Hyracoidea; there are several hyrax species found in Africa and parts of Asia. These little mammals are quite unusual, displaying several characteristics associated with early mammalian evolution, and they seem to represent a distinct branch of the mammal world which was perhaps once much larger. Despite the fact that a hyrax looks like a rodent at first glance, these animals are actually most closely related to elephants and manatees, and they also appear to be related to the ungulates, although the precise connection between hyraxes and ungulates is unclear.
These animals are so distinctive that they have their very own order, recognizing the fact that they are quite separate from other living mammal species. Most hyraxes are around the size of a small dog, with very compact, muscular bodies. They have stubby legs, tails, and ears, and their coats range from creamy white to brown, sometimes with stripes or dots, depending on the environment the hyrax lives in.
Perhaps most remarkably, the hyrax has small hooves on the end of its toes, and each hoof is capped with moist, padded skin which the hyrax can use almost like a suction cup to climb, navigating rocks, trees, and a variety of other terrains. Some hyraxes are so well adapted to climbing that they spend most of their lives in trees, while others prefer to live in large colonies of around 50 individuals on the ground.
Hyraxes lack the more precise temperature regulation abilities associated with most mammals, and as a result they are forced to rely on each other for body heat, and to sunbathe to take advantage of warm weather. They also have stomachs which superficially resemble those of ruminants, because they are divided into compartments for easier digestion of their vegetarian diet, but unlike ruminants, hyraxes do not chew cud.
The gestation period for the hyrax can be up to eight months, depending on the species, with up to four young being born in a litter. Some biologists have suggested that the rather long gestation period of the hyrax is related to the fact that these animals were once quite large. Fossilized remains of hyraxes the size of elephants have been discovered, supporting this theory. Hyraxes may also be called conies, shrewmice, or rock badgers, depending on regional slang, and reflecting the general confusion about what biological category these animals really belong in.