by Don Raymond
Consider the hyrax.
Not the book by Dr. Suess, but the third surviving member of the clade Paenungulata*.
You’ve heard of it before, although you can’t remember where. Nothing about the hyrax lends itself to memory: It can’t swim, has no great extreme of size or intelligence, and is rarely mistaken for a mermaid. Mostly it resembles a gopher, except when its teeth are visible; then it resembles a vampire gopher.
Its diet is unremarkable, its lifestyle, more so. It is, in short, completely forgettable. A wallflower at the Animal Ball.
But like the okapi or the echidna, its name stirs a faint echo of recollection. You don’t remember what one is, exactly, but you know, without having to check, that they’re real. The same cannot be said for the gennet, the kanchil, or the fossa.
The Slow Loris? Something from a Sarah Lindsay poem, maybe; unlikely, though.
The hyrax, though … something about it lingers on the edge of familiarity, like the name of a distant cousin. Somewhere, you are certain, at some party, it was mentioned.
Like many wallflowers, its claim to fame is its family: the hyrax is the closest living relative of both the elephant and the manatee, the third and final member of that mouth-filling taxonomic pigeonhole Paenungulata. No one, except hobbyists, mentions it except in relation to its more famous relatives.
It’s shocking enough that elephants and manatees are related, another of science’s series of paradigm-shattering litany: A wave is a particle! Plants have memory! Elephants and manatees are related! But not to anything else, not as closely—not the rhino, the wildebeest, the warthog or dolphin. Rhinos and elephants might make some sort of sense, but the manatee?
And then, the absurdity that gives it the ring of truth: that the last member of their family should be an utterly unremarkable little gopher-like critter with the Scrabble-happy name. At the least, we could classify elephants and manatees as “extraordinary.” The hyrax? Less so. Surely, considering its genealogy, we might have expected better.
The manatee, now…an algal sylph; an allegory, perhaps, for all that is flawed within ourselves, an accusation written in propeller scars. They linger in the warm effluvia of our power plants, and we feel somehow that this should not be so…but the alternative is extinction. And so the manatee becomes an unwitting symbol of our times—a mermaid living in toxic waste. Welcome to 2016; here’s your crash helmet.
The elephant needs no introduction.
It’s no surprise the hyrax is overlooked. We could talk about its underdeveloped thermoregulatory ability; its unique dental arrangement; that it is the Mouse Who Grew Tusks…but does even that compete with the Mermaid of Turkey Point?
Like the bookworm brother or the mousy girl at the high school dance, the hyrax is only familiar because of someone else. Manatees are photogenic, elephants have personalities; both represent, in some fashion, the landscapes they inhabit. It would be impossible to denominate the rock hyrax: there are thousands of them. They don’t even have the distinction of being endangered.
Which is the point.
Elephants, manatees and all the rest of the so-called charismatic megafauna—so charming, so iconic, so resource intensive—are quickly running out of time and space. We may idolize them, but we are also burying them under the tidal wave of our own success. Soon enough, they’ll be no more than a footnote, along with the quagga and the blaubok. Individuality isn’t a survival trait, anymore; the future is adaptability; it’s fitting in and making do. The hyrax doesn’t have tucks to attract poachers, doesn’t lure sailors to their doom or recreational boaters into collisions. They’re not big or dangerous enough to get noticed. They fit in everywhere: climbing trees to feast in gardens, scurrying beneath porches and patios…and no matter how you try to stem the tide, there will always be more. The primordial wilderness, the vast and uncharted places—they’re as extinct as the ground sloth. The ones who last are the boring ones, the ones who don’t attract attention. In 2016, the only thing that matters is numbers. The future belongs to the wallflowers.
- Latin for “term I looked up on Wikipedia.”
About Don Raymond
Don Raymond lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, CA, where he works as an accountant at the local casino, which is not a career path his counselors ever mentioned to him. In keeping with the tradition that writers have weird jobs, he has previously been a lightbulb salesman and the manager of an Egyptian museum. He spends his free time writing, playing the harmonica, and mediating the Machiavellian feline politics of his household. He also once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque. You can read more of his work at The Saturday Evening Post, Bourbon Penn, and Animal, find him online at www.cthulhuconspiracy.wordpress.com, or follow him on Twitter @dementeddon