The Biblical Hyraxes of the Negev, and Their Songs

October 13, 2022 | Judy Siegel-Itzkovich
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In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the shafan is listed as being unkosher since it is one of few animals that chews its cud but does not have split hooves. Although in modern Hebrew shafan usually means “rabbit,” it is far more likely that these verses refer to the rock hyrax. (The arnevet mentioned in these passages is likely a rabbit.) These creatures, according to Proverbs 30:25, “are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks.” Judy Siegel-Itzkovich describes Israeli scientists’ most recent discoveries about this peculiar species:

Hyraxes are medium-sized, plant-eating mammals with soft, gray-brown, or yellowish fur that look like a robust, oversized guinea pig or a rabbit with rounded ears and no tail. Native to Africa and the Middle East, the species are common on hills in Israel and have some unpleasant characteristics.

They bite, can spread rabies and, when bitten by sandflies, can transmit a parasite, causing a disease characterized by irregular bouts of fever, weight loss, enlargement of the spleen and liver and anemia that could be fatal if left untreated.

Their redeeming feature is that the males sing beautiful courting songs to female hyraxes. A new study on animal behavior that involved researchers from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan has linked reproductive success in male rock hyraxes to their ability to maintain rhythm during songs.

Unlike many other animals known to communicate through song, hyraxes usually sing alone, according to Vlad Demartsev, who collected the data for this study while at Tel Aviv University. . . . “Their songs have regional dialects, so individuals living in proximity sing more similarly to each other,” he said. “They tend to sing in crescendo [getting louder as the song progresses] and reach peak complexity towards the end of their songs, maybe to keep the audience engaged and listening to the signals.”

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