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All Creatures,

Episode 106: The Fantastic Fennec Fox

July 30, 2019

The world’s smallest fox, the Fennec Fox, lives in one of the harshest environments on our planet. These small omnivores have learned to survive and thrive in the Sahara Desert of Africa. These charismatic mammals really pull at your heart strings and just how they survive will amaze you.

Fennec Fox History

Fennec Foxes (Vulpes zerda) are part of the “true” fox family. There are precisely 12 species of “true foxes”, with another 25 species that are fox like. All belong to the Canidae family and derive from a common ancestor.

Foxes initially evolved like other canids in North America. Approximately 8 million years ago, the fox ancient ancestor crossed the Bering Straight into Asia and pushed throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. Interestingly, the Fennec Fox is a great example of microevolution, or anatomical changes within a species. There are two main rules that apply to Fennec Fox evolution.

First, there is Allen’s rule that states animals evolve based on the climate they live in, with their extremities adapting to their environment. For example, the Fennec Fox evolved in one of the hottest environments on Earth and they have extremely large ears and other larger extremities, that aid in them thermoregulating and staying cool during the hot days. Conversely, the Artic Fox has smaller extremities, which help them conserve body hear.

Second, is Bergmann’s rule which states animals in colder climates tend to be bigger, whereas animals in hotter environments tend to be smaller. Again, larger animals tend to conserve heat better than smaller animals. The Fennec Fox is the smallest of all fox species.

The range of the Fennec Fox ranges across all of Northern Africa across the Sahara Desert, and then range into the Arabian Peninsula. Daytime temperatures can reach almost 122 F (50 C) and can change rapidly to near freezing during the night. The Fennec Fox has many incredible adaptations to help them survive in this harsh environment.

Fennec Fox Physiology

The Fennec Fox has many adaptations allowing them to survive in their harsh desert environment. For example, while their large ears do provide an advantage in hearing, especially burrowing prey, they also act to help dissipate heat. Also, their thick coats buffer them in the hot daytime sun. They also have hair on the pads of their feet that help protect them from the hot sand and actually helps them grip. However, the Fennec Fox is a nocturnal animal and during the heat of the day, they actually stay inside their deep (3.5 feet or 1 m) dens. Their long bushy tails can actually be used to wrap around their bodies to help them stay warm at night.

Fennec Foxes also are monogamous and mate for life. They tend to live approximately 10 years in the wild, 12 years under human care. They mainly eat a diet of insects, rodents, reptiles, or almost anything they can find. Most interestingly, the Fennec Fox can go all their lives without every drinking from a source of water. They actually get their moisture from their diet and have been observed eating fruit, leaves and even roots.

Fennec Fox Conservation

There are no hard numbers on the total number of Fennec Foxes around the planet. However, they do appear to be doing well and are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. Since they live in such a harsh climate, they have not been as affected as other species due to human activity. However, there is great concern with the Sahara Desert. Due to climate change, the Sahara Desert is actually expanding southward at approximately 1.5 million hectares of land per year.

Organizations to Support

The Nature Conservancy

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