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Fennec Fox

Fox, Fennec

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Description

Fennec foxes are a fantastic example of the biological concept “form fits function”— all of their most recognizable physical traits can be directly tied to the extreme selective pressures of their natural habitat: the hot, dry Sahara desert of north Africa.

The fennec fox is the world’s smallest naturally occurring canid species. The descriptor “naturally occurring” is important, as there are likely some dog breeds that are smaller than the fennec fox, but these dog breeds reached this size through selective breeding by humans, not through natural selection. There are a variety of benefits to being small in a desert. There is less vegetation in a desert, and therefore less herbivores can be supported and less food is available for predators, so a smaller size means a larger population of carnivores can be supported. Being small also makes it easier to dissipate body heat and stay cool, as well as dig networks of tunnels under the sand.

The physical trait often first noticed on the fennec fox is their massive ears. The ears make up ~20% of the body surface on a fennec fox, and fennec foxes have the largest ear to body ratio of any canid species. These ears work very well for the typical ear function of hearing their prey, but serve another extremely important function of assisting with heat loss. Fennec foxes can dilate the blood vessels in their ears, allowing more blood to to flow through these high surface area ears and more heat to be dissipated.

Fennec foxes have sandy, cream colored coats that both help them blend in with their desert habitat and reflect some sunlight, keeping them slightly cooler. They also have fur on their foot pads, which acts as a buffer to protect the soft pads of their feet from the hot desert sand.

A less outwardly visible but amazing trait of the fennec fox is the slowing of some of their bodily functions. A fennec fox’s metabolism functions at ~2/3rds the rate predicted for their body size, and their heart rate is ~40% lower than what would be expected for their body size. A higher metabolism and faster heart rate means higher food requirements and more heat being generated, so these are huge energy saving traits!

Classification

Overview
Fennec foxes are mammals in the canid, or "dog-like" family. This family has 37 currently recognized species and includes foxes, jackals, coyotes, wolves, and dogs.
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Canidae
Genus
Vulpes
Species
V. zerda

Key Facts

Conservation Status
Least Concern
Lifespan
Up to 10 years in the wild, up to 12 years under human care
Height
~7 – 8.5 in (~18 – 22 cm)
Weight
~1.8 – 4.1 lbs (~0.8 – 1.87 kg)

The IUCN Red List describes the fennec fox as a species of Least Concern, meaning conservationists around the world are not currently worried about the continuation of this species. A small animal that spends lots of time underground in a harsh desert is extremely difficult to survey, so there is no detailed information on fennec fox abundance. However, they seem to be very common in areas farther away from human settlement. In extensive camera trap surveys of Chad, they were the most commonly seen species.

While fennec fox populations as a whole seem to be stable for now, there have been populations near human settlements that have disappeared completely, likely due to their heavy involvement in the pet trade. Fennec foxes are very small and have large ears—traits that humans find extremely cute. Because of this, these foxes are becoming more and more popular as exotic pets. However, fennec foxes are non-domesticated wild animals, and do not make good pets! Their nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) lifestyle means that they want to be active while you are asleep, their burrowing tendencies mean that your couches and carpets won’t last long, and their vocalizations have been described as extremely unpleasant high-pitched squeals and shrieks. If you love fennec foxes, consider one of the cute stuffed animal fennec foxes in the Safari West gift shop when you visit instead!

Social Life
Fennec foxes are thought to be fairly social animals, but there is little data on the social behavior of wild individuals. Groups of parents and their offspring have often been observed together. Offspring have sometimes been observed staying with their parents even after a new litter is born. Under human care they are very social, and will often rest with their bodies touching. Play behavior is common, even in adults.

Habitat and Range
Fennec foxes live almost exclusively in arid, sandy regions in the central Sahara Desert in northern Africa. Sand dunes that have been stabilized by vegetation seem to be the ideal habitat.

Diet
The fennec fox hunts for a variety of prey including small rodents, small reptiles, insects, small birds, and eggs.  Fennec foxes are omnivorous and will supplement their diet with various roots and fruits as needed. They will dig into dirt and sand to find prey and edible plant material, and will also “cache” food (store it for later) by burying it.

Predators
There are few large predators in the central Sahara, so predation is likely not a large concern for most fennec foxes. However, these foxes have been observed being predated by large birds of prey such as eagle-owls, as well as jackals and caracals.

Reproduction
Sexual maturity: 9 – 12 months
Mating Season:   January – February
Birth Season:      March – April
Gestation:           50 – 53 days
No. of Young:     1 – 6 per litter, usually 1 – 4

Information

Description

Fennec foxes are a fantastic example of the biological concept “form fits function”— all of their most recognizable physical traits can be directly tied to the extreme selective pressures of their natural habitat: the hot, dry Sahara desert of north Africa.

The fennec fox is the world’s smallest naturally occurring canid species. The descriptor “naturally occurring” is important, as there are likely some dog breeds that are smaller than the fennec fox, but these dog breeds reached this size through selective breeding by humans, not through natural selection. There are a variety of benefits to being small in a desert. There is less vegetation in a desert, and therefore less herbivores can be supported and less food is available for predators, so a smaller size means a larger population of carnivores can be supported. Being small also makes it easier to dissipate body heat and stay cool, as well as dig networks of tunnels under the sand.

The physical trait often first noticed on the fennec fox is their massive ears. The ears make up ~20% of the body surface on a fennec fox, and fennec foxes have the largest ear to body ratio of any canid species. These ears work very well for the typical ear function of hearing their prey, but serve another extremely important function of assisting with heat loss. Fennec foxes can dilate the blood vessels in their ears, allowing more blood to to flow through these high surface area ears and more heat to be dissipated.

Fennec foxes have sandy, cream colored coats that both help them blend in with their desert habitat and reflect some sunlight, keeping them slightly cooler. They also have fur on their foot pads, which acts as a buffer to protect the soft pads of their feet from the hot desert sand.

A less outwardly visible but amazing trait of the fennec fox is the slowing of some of their bodily functions. A fennec fox’s metabolism functions at ~2/3rds the rate predicted for their body size, and their heart rate is ~40% lower than what would be expected for their body size. A higher metabolism and faster heart rate means higher food requirements and more heat being generated, so these are huge energy saving traits!

Classification

Overview
Fennec foxes are mammals in the canid, or "dog-like" family. This family has 37 currently recognized species and includes foxes, jackals, coyotes, wolves, and dogs.
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Canidae
Genus
Vulpes
Species
V. zerda

Key Facts

Conservation Status
Least Concern
Lifespan
Up to 10 years in the wild, up to 12 years under human care
Height
~7 – 8.5 in (~18 – 22 cm)
Weight
~1.8 – 4.1 lbs (~0.8 – 1.87 kg)

The IUCN Red List describes the fennec fox as a species of Least Concern, meaning conservationists around the world are not currently worried about the continuation of this species. A small animal that spends lots of time underground in a harsh desert is extremely difficult to survey, so there is no detailed information on fennec fox abundance. However, they seem to be very common in areas farther away from human settlement. In extensive camera trap surveys of Chad, they were the most commonly seen species.

While fennec fox populations as a whole seem to be stable for now, there have been populations near human settlements that have disappeared completely, likely due to their heavy involvement in the pet trade. Fennec foxes are very small and have large ears—traits that humans find extremely cute. Because of this, these foxes are becoming more and more popular as exotic pets. However, fennec foxes are non-domesticated wild animals, and do not make good pets! Their nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) lifestyle means that they want to be active while you are asleep, their burrowing tendencies mean that your couches and carpets won’t last long, and their vocalizations have been described as extremely unpleasant high-pitched squeals and shrieks. If you love fennec foxes, consider one of the cute stuffed animal fennec foxes in the Safari West gift shop when you visit instead!

Social Life
Fennec foxes are thought to be fairly social animals, but there is little data on the social behavior of wild individuals. Groups of parents and their offspring have often been observed together. Offspring have sometimes been observed staying with their parents even after a new litter is born. Under human care they are very social, and will often rest with their bodies touching. Play behavior is common, even in adults.

Habitat and Range
Fennec foxes live almost exclusively in arid, sandy regions in the central Sahara Desert in northern Africa. Sand dunes that have been stabilized by vegetation seem to be the ideal habitat.

Diet
The fennec fox hunts for a variety of prey including small rodents, small reptiles, insects, small birds, and eggs.  Fennec foxes are omnivorous and will supplement their diet with various roots and fruits as needed. They will dig into dirt and sand to find prey and edible plant material, and will also “cache” food (store it for later) by burying it.

Predators
There are few large predators in the central Sahara, so predation is likely not a large concern for most fennec foxes. However, these foxes have been observed being predated by large birds of prey such as eagle-owls, as well as jackals and caracals.

Reproduction
Sexual maturity: 9 – 12 months
Mating Season:   January – February
Birth Season:      March – April
Gestation:           50 – 53 days
No. of Young:     1 – 6 per litter, usually 1 – 4