Animal Spotlight: Fennec Fox

Taxonomy:

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Credit: San Diego Zoo
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Vulpes
  • Species: zerda
  • Average Length: 9-16 in (29-41 cm)
  • Average Tail Length: 7-12 in (18-30 cm)
  • Average Weight: 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg)
  • Average Lifespan: 10 years

Smaller than the average domestic cat, the fennec fox is the world’s smallest fox, but it’s oversized and large ears, measuring up to 6 inches, appear to have been borrowed from a bigger relative. It inhabits sandy deserts and semi-deserts, preferring stable sand dunes in which it can burrow. It’s region spans the deserts of the Sahara and throughout North Africa to the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia. These are the following countries in which this species can be found: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia.

Physical Appearance:

Because they dwell in the desert, their nocturnal habits and physical adaptations help them deal with the searing heat of the dry environment.

Their coloration is typically cream to sandy yellow with white “edges” and some black ticking, which helps this fox blend with the desert sand. Their top torso is the reddish cream color while their underbellies are pure white. Typical of any type of fox, the Fennec has a very bushy tail and thick, soft fur. The tail is slightly black tipped and the whiskers are long and black. The eyes are a dark beetle-black. It’s teeth are small but needle sharp.

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Fennec fox at Cincinnati Zoo. Photo By: Phil Myers

But it’s their distinctive, batlike ears, which can be half as long as their body, that catch people’s eyes. The long pinnae are used to radiate and dissipate body heat to help keep the foxes cool. It also allows to help locate prey moving under the sand.

Even the fox’s feet are hairy and thickly furred, which helps them perform like snowshoes and protect them from extremely hot sand. They are also effective shovels for frequent digging. The fur also muffles the fox’s footfall, allowing a stealthy hunt.

Thick fur in a desert animal is not what is usually expected. Because the Fennec is nocturnal, it needs insulation against the cold common in desert climates at night. Fennecs prefer to come out of the den around twilight, right before the harsh cold and after the intense desert heat. The pale color of the Fennec’s coat has reflective guard hairs and helps keep the animal cool when occasionally about during the day. The light coat color also provides camouflage against the desert sands.

Fur in adults is thick and silky, buff-colored on the dorsal surface and white along the animal’s legs, face, ear-linings and underside. In contrast, juveniles are downy and almost exclusively white. The fur over the violet gland – found in all foxes, and of unknown function – is black or dark brown.

Diet:

Fennec foxes are omnivores and opportunistic eaters, feasting on a variety of prey as nighttime hunters. They enjoy large insects like beetles and locusts, small rodents, snails, lizards, the occasional bird, and eggs, but will also forage on plants and fruits.

Like most desert dwellers, the fennec foxes have developed the ability to living with very little water. Majority of their water comes from their prey or the plants they consume, but will drink readily if a water source is nearby.

Behavior:

Fennec foxes are mostly nocturnal animals. They spend most of the day in an underground burrow avoiding the desert heat, only to emerge from their dens at dusk and through the night to begin the search for food. Their dens can be up to three feet deep and are usually under rock piles and roots of brush.

A number of foxes may live together in what becomes an extensive tunnel system, dwelling in small communities of approximately ten individuals. Males have a small harem of several related females and their juvenile pups. However, little is known about their social system and specific daily habits are still unknown in the wild. Like other canids, male fennecs mark their territory with urine and become aggressive competitors when mating season arrives each year.

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Credit: National Zoo

Fennec foxes do mate for life, unless a mate passes away, and the pair will live with their offspring. Mating season is usually from January to February, with females giving birth in March or April. After a gestation period of around 50 days, a litter of two to five cubs are born. Despite the short gestation period, females will give birth only once a year. So the low birth rate and slow reproductive recovery of declining fennec populations means that fennec parents have a high reproductive investment in their pups.

Both genders play a significant role in caring and raising for young, which are born blind and helpless. Females will stay with the kits until they are fully weaned, which isn’t until around 60 to 70 days, and give continuous care for the two weeks following birth. Males bring home prey and will defend the burrow in the meantime. Newborns have a short, downy fur that grows fluffier and more dense as the adult hairs come in. The eyes open at about 15 days and nurse for nearly a month before they begin eating prey. At four weeks, the pups begin to play within the den and around a week later, play extends to the area just outside the den entrance. After 9 to 11 months, the cubs will reach adult size and reach sexual maturity. Fennecs are very aggressive in the defense of their young, and added protection for the pups may be a reason to maintain community structure.

Vocalizations are many and varied, such as a purr of affection, a bark like a common dog, a happy scream, and an extremely loud angry shriek.

Conservation and Threats:

For the most part, fennec foxes are considered to have stable populations, though little is known about the status of wild fennec fox populations. IUCN lists the species as of ‘least concern’ but CITES lists it as a threatened species under Appendix II.

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Fennec Fox at the National Zoo. Credit: Tanya Dewey

While there are no major threats to the desert-dwelling wild populations, habitat loss still occurs in their native range and will continue to rapidly increase as human development and activity grows. Construction of new roads, bettering of non-asphalted roads and new human settlements increase the disturbance and risk to some populations. Ongoing seismic surveys, exploratory drilling and oil field developments, coupled with increasing development of commercial transport and migration routes across recently remote parts of the region, create further pressure. The impact of major oil field development on local populations has not been assessed.

Dogs and humans are thought to pose the greatest threat. In Northern Africa, they are in danger of being trapped or hunted and sold commercially. They are captured for the pet trade, sold to locals to be raised for meat, or killed for their fur which is used by the indigenous people of northern Africa. These foxes have also become a target for rodent extermination or are killed by domestic dogs. Because of these threats, there have been a decline in numbers in certain populations in northwestern Africa, and in new permanent human settlements, such as those in southern Morocco, have resulted in the disappearance of fennec foxes from those areas.

In captivity, there is a stable fennec fox population with individuals spread out in accredited institutions of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (U.S.), European Zoos and Aquarium Association, and the Zoos and Aquarium Association (Australia, New Zealand, and South Pacific).  As of June 2014, there were 156 individuals in 42 AZA institutions, and 130 in 50 EAZA institutions, both in actively managed programmes. Although there is no studbook or formal species management programme for Fennecs in Australian zoos, there are 16 individuals living in five zoos managed by the ZAA, all of which descend from the AZA or EAZA populations. They are also kept in private collections within the Middle East and are also bred privately in the United States where they are sometimes kept as pets. Though every fox that comes in must undergo inspection, those records are not available.

Since 2001, Fennec Fox populations have been managed in zoos for the purposes of captive breeding, research and education. Captive populations are managed using genetic and demographic goals so that they are as self sustaining as possible.

Research projects with fennec fox are varied; some are specific to the species itself, whereas other projects utilize the fennec as a model for other foxes. These projects have contributed greatly to our knowledge of Fennec Fox, but also help develop and validate techniques for use in other species such as the Darwin’s Fox, where there is interest in potentially setting up captive breeding facilities within Chile.

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Captive Fennec Fox in Israel. Credit: David Blank

Finally, in AZA, one-third of the Fennec Fox population are dedicated to educational roles. Fennec Foxes are charismatic and one of the few carnivore species available for this purpose. Zoo-based education programmes for Fennecs are varied, but include: 1) discussions about canid biology and ecology, 2) discussions about the differences between wolves, dogs and foxes, and 3) talking about desert adaptations and ecosystems.

The fennec fox is legally protected in Morocco, and occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range, such as Bir El Abd Conservation Area in Egypt, and Aïr and Tenere National Reserve in Niger. Fennec foxes have been bred in captivity, which has increased knowledge of this species, and yet much remains unknown of their behaviour and ecology in the wild. Further studies on wild populations are needed to enable the conservation status of the fennec fox to be assessed.

Interesting Facts:

  • The fennec fox is one of the only carnivores that seems to do well in the Sahara desert because of its ability to survive with very little water.
  • While their legs may not be long, they can run up to 20 miles per hour. They are also good jumpers. Adults can jump up to 3 feet or 1 meter when standing
  • Its name comes from the Arabic word “fanak,” which means fox. Zerda, their species name, originates from ‘zerdaw,’ an Arabic word of Persian origin which means ‘fennec.
  • Like felines, fennec vision is enhanced by a reflective retina called a tapetum. The tapetum creates an illusion of glowing eyes, much like in domestic cats, wild alligators, or any other typical nocturnal predator.
  • Extreme panting helps fennec foxes keep their temperatures regulated when the heat climbs; breathing rates climb from 23 breaths per minute to up to 690.
  • A group of foxes is called a ‘skulk’ or a leash’. Male foxes are called dogs and reynard. Females are considered as vixens.

References + For More Reading:

NatGeo Animal Ark: Fennec Fox

San Diego Zoo: Fennec Fox

Foxes and Friends: Fennec Fox

Arkive: Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda)

National Zoo: Fennec Fox

Canids: Fennec Fox

Rosamond Gifford Zoo: Fennec Fox

Animal Corner: Fennec Fox

Animal Diversity Web: Vulpes zerda

IUCN: Vulpes zerda (Fennec Fox)

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