Fennec Fox

STATUSLeast Concern

COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Vulpes zerda

DIETInsects, small mammals, birds, greens

RANGECentral Sahara; northern Morocco, Kuwait, Nigeria and Chad

HABITATSandy burrows, usually at the base of hills where moisture is likely to be retained the longest

Fennec Fox

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Program and General Information

Fennec foxes are native to the desert and semi-desert habitats of North Africa across the central Sahara from Mauritania to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. They are the smallest of the canid species averaging only 9-16 inches in length and weighing around 3-4 pounds. Adult fennec foxes have thick, full fur ranging in color from reddish cream to light fawn/sand (sometimes even white) and have a black- tipped tail. Their large ears, measuring about 4-6 inches, are their most distinguishing feature. These foxes are omnivores and eat mostly rodents, birds, insects, reptiles, and eggs, as well as, grass, berries, and fruit. Breeding season occurs from January-February, with kits being born in March and April. After a gestation period of about 50 days, females will give birth to litters of 2-5 kits.

Females stay with the kits until they are weaned, after 60 to 70 days; and males venture to hunt for food for the family. Maturity occurs around 10-11 months.


Diet

Fennec foxes are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. They are opportunistic feeders and will consume small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and eggs. They will also eat a variety of shoots, roots of grasses, berries, and other fruits.

Fennec foxes are mostly nocturnal animals. They spend most of the day in an underground burrow, which can be as deep as 3 feet, avoiding the desert heat. They emerge from their dens at dusk to begin the search for food.

Fennec foxes have adapted to the dry Sahara Desert and can go extended periods of time without water.


Habitat and Range

Fennec foxes are native to the desert and semi-desert habitats of North Africa. They are found primarily across the central Sahara from Mauritania to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Being desert dwellers, these foxes have many adaptations that allow them to live with very little water and combat the heat of the desert sun.

While they are considered solitary, fennec foxes will often live in small, family groups of around 10 individuals: a breeding pair, littermates, and older siblings. They burrow into sand dunes during the day to avoid the extreme heat. Individual dens tend to be close in proximity and are sometimes even connected to one another.


Common Physical Features

Fennec foxes are the smallest of all the canid species (including foxes, wolves, dogs, coyotes, and jackals). They average 9-16 inches in length and stand at about 8 inches tall. Their tail can get up to 12 inches and their ears are almost half the length of their body at 4-6 inches. Adults have thick fur that is typically a reddish cream or light fawn/sand color to help them camouflage in their desert habitat. The violet gland, a specialized gland found on the upper surface of the tail that is thought to be used for scent marking, and the tip of the tail are black.

Adaptations: Fennec foxes have many adaptations that help them thrive in their desert environments. Their fur not only helps these foxes camouflage, but it also aids in temperature control, deflecting heat during the day and keeping them warm at night. Fennec foxes also have a layer of fur on their paws that protect their feet from the hot surface of the sand. While their legs may not be very long, fennec foxes can run 20 miles per hour. They keep their tongues curled to conserve salvia and only start to pant when the temperature is above 95 degrees.

Perhaps the fennec fox’s most notable feature is its large ears. These ears can be half as long as the fox’s body and assist the fox in a few different ways. Fennec foxes’ ears can help keep them cool in the desert heat. Mammals that live in hot, dry climates tend to have more surface area with larger ears, longer legs and tails, and slimmer bodies; this increased surface area helps to dissipate heat.
Fennec fox ears are full of blood vessels that are close to the skin and act as a cooling system. These ears are also extremely useful for hunting prey. Fennec foxes have extraordinary hearing that allows them to find prey that is burrowing underground.

The Sahara Desert averages less than 3 inches of rainfall per year, so the fennec fox has various adaptations to minimize its need for water. Their specialized kidneys are adapted to restrict water loss, and most of the water they need comes from the food that they eat. Their extensive burrowing may also cause the formation of dew, which can then be consumed.


Behavior and Life Cycle

Breeding season for the fennec fox occurs between January and February. These foxes are monogamous and mate for life. Females will give birth to a litter of 2-5 kits after a gestation period of about 50 days. Kits are typically born in March or April. Females will stay with the kits until they are weaned, ready to go off on their own, while the male ventures out to hunt for food for the family.

When they are first born, kits are blind and their ears are folded over. After about 10 days they will open their eyes and their ears will begin to lift. Maturity is reached around 10-11 months.

Like other canids, fennec foxes bark, as well as whimper and whine to communicate. They will also mark their territory by urinating around the perimeter.


Conservation Messaging

Purposeful Pet Ownership
The biggest threat to fennec foxes is humans and the illegal pet trade. In sandy areas, the Fennec fox is well known and people will trap and sell them as pets. By purchasing and owning an exotic animal, you could be supporting the illegal exotic pet trade. Oftentimes these exotic pets are taken out of their natural habitat to be sold in the pet trade, which can be detrimental to wild populations. One more exotic pet in captivity is one less animal in the wild which is resulting in species population numbers dropping drastically.

Fennec foxes do not make good pets. They are always alert and attentive and are easily distressed by loud noises and unexpected events. A zoo setting is rather predictable and these foxes can get used to the daily level of noise and activity, but most homes are not as predictable of a setting and are likely to cause increased stress. And while fennec foxes are playful, they do not enjoy being held or touched. They are excellent at digging and tearing items and can be highly destructive in a household setting.

What can we do?: Be sure to fully research any pet before buying one. While you may think an exotic animal would make a cool pet, it’s important to know all of the care that goes into providing that animal with the best possible welfare, and oftentimes these animals require a lot of extra care. It is important to make sure that if you do buy an exotic pet that you are buying it from a reputable breeder, someone who knows how to properly care for the animal and hasn’t taken that animal from its natural habitat.

Do not release an unwanted pet into the wild. While you may think that you are doing something good by releasing the animal back into the wild, animals that have been kept under human care often do not know how to survive on their own out in the wild and could end up getting hurt or dying if left to their own devices.

Supporting organizations that aid in the conservation of wildlife is another great way to help ensure species like the fennec fox continue to thrive.


Fun Facts

  • The fennec fox is the national animal of Algeria and their soccer team is named “Les Fennecs.”
  • The name “fennec” comes from Arabic and is derived from the Persian word fanak or fanaj, referring to a variety of furry animals.
  • Their playfulness often includes piercing screams, like air being released from a balloon, which they will sometimes produce for minutes on end.
  • Fennec fox dens can have as many as 15 entrances and may even connect with dens of other families.

Bibliography

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