Friday, May 31, 2024

Island Fox Status Update 2024

In 2023, island fox populations remained healthy and stable across all six islands. Weather extremes, however, effected islands in different ways.

Island fox on San Clemente Island courtesy of J. Sanchez

The following is an update across the Channel Islands from notes compiled by Friends of the Island Fox at the Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting May 8, 2024 hosted at the Santa Barbara Zoo (hybrid meeting).

Reported population numbers are the official estimates submitted by the land managers and calculated by them from island foxes captured for health checks July–December 2023. (How island foxes are captured and given health checks)

Overview: Rainfall was abundant in 2023, but the impact on plant and prey species varied by island. Island fox populations on smaller islands grew, while island fox numbers on larger islands adjusted downward slightly. The anomaly was Santa Cruz Island, which appears to have experienced a significant population increase, creating a historic record for a single island population.


Range Size and Diet Research: Ongoing research by FIF Research Grant recipient Katie Elder revealed that fox home ranges on Santa Rosa Island have declined in size by 83% since 2009. It's not surprising that home range territories have gotten smaller as the fox population has recovered from less than 400 individuals to over 2,500. The surprise is how strictly the 15 male foxes monitored for a year with GPS collars stayed confined within their small territories. This means that individuals in poor habitats have less access to varied resources; inland foxes aren't accessing beach foods and individuals with grassland home ranges may have less access to fruiting plants. How will individual survival be challenged if drought conditions return?

Density: On the northern islands, island fox density has become high: 11.35–14 island foxes per square kilometer. What is island fox density? While it's great to see increased populations of island foxes, high density means individual fox territories are close together. Disease can be transmitted more easily through a dense population. As the Range Size research reveals, high population density may also mean island foxes have less flexibility to survive fluctuations in their available resources.  

Climate Impacts: For the first time, islands documented increased rainfall that did not coincide with island fox population growth. The timing of storms or extreme high levels of rain may have negatively impacted deer mouse or insect populations resulting in fewer resources for island foxes.    

In 2024, the leading threats to island foxes are:

  • biosecurity: the threat of introduced viruses, accidental transportation of a deadly parasitic worm from San Miguel Island to other islands, disease, and/or non-native animals
  • reduced funding for monitoring
  • climate change: extreme weather effects food resources, heightens parasites, challenges health, and can make it more difficult for biologists to access the islands

Greatest Concern: Biosecurity threats are heightened by the high density of island foxes on northern islands and rising tourism on Catalina Island. Canine distemper and other dog diseases remain threats. A new investigation has identified the parasitic spiny-headed worm on San Miguel Island that has caused fox fatalities in the past, especially in drought years. The investigation to find the prey species that acts as an intermediary host continues. New findings reveal that this lethal intestinal parasite was most likely transported to the island by humans. It is vitally important that this parasite not be moved to other islands.

Be a BioSecurity Guardian–Clean, Check, and Close everything you take to the islands. Watch Biosecurity Video.


Smaller Islands

San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands appear to have equally benefited from additional moisture and available resources. Their populations grew at the same rate in 2023. San Clemente Island remained stable at its lower population size.

San Miguel Island (lime green line): While adult annual survival declined, healthy pups stabilized and increased the population. This island currently has the greatest island fox density: 14 foxes per square kilometer.

San Nicolas Island (pink line): General health remains good, but lifespan appears to be 7–8 years, rather than the 10–12 years on larger islands. Density remains moderate at 8.4 foxes per sq km. Dog flu has declined, but remains prevalent. Car strike causes the greatest island fox mortality and more days of foggy weather increased fox fatalities.

San Clemente Island (blue line): Adult island foxes on this island had a high 89% chance of surviving the year, but pup survival continues to be investigated. This island currently has the lowest fox density: 4.06 foxes per sq km. Approximately 5% of the population is lost annually to car strike and inexperienced young island foxes are more likely to be hit.

 


Larger Islands

The larger islands were all thought to have reached carrying capacity. Santa Catalina and Santa Rosa Islands adjusted downward at nearly the same small rate in this extremely wet year. Because their populations are so large, this adjustment is not unexpected. Santa Cruz Island, however, increased at the same high rate as the small islands, creating a historic population estimate.

Santa Catalina Island (red line): The population remained stable with a density of 9.22 foxes per sq km. Analysis of tick samples collected from island foxes from 2019–2022 showed no tick-borne disease. This is important because 60% of Catalina Island foxes carry ticks. Both dog flu and corona virus declined in 2023, but biosecurity remains a huge concern on this island. From car strike and dog attack to foxes being drown in scuba wash tanks and entrapped in human structures, humans and pets currently pose the greatest threat to island foxes. In 2023, over 62% of known fox fatalities were human caused.

Santa Rosa Island (pink line with black centers): This population remains stable with a high density of 11.35 foxes per sq km and adults had an 89.5% chance of surviving the year. Research is showing that Rosa foxes are becoming dietary specialists. How will this impact individual foxes and the island ecosystem?

Santa Cruz Island (black line): With an adult annual survival rate of 94.7%, this island was estimated to have a historic population size of 4,057. The fox density is currently 12.9 foxes per sq km. Due to a record 35 inches of rain, foxes could not be counted in some of the traditional grid locations. There is a possibility that the high population calculation may be slightly inflated by data fluctuations.

Weather has a profound effect on island resources. Changing weather patterns–tropical summer storms, extreme winter rainfall, increased summer heat, denser fog–all impact island habitats and island foxes. 

Your donations help monitor island fox survival with radio collars and provide vaccinations to protect them from introduced disease. Research is investigating health, behavior, and how best to support stable island fox populations in a changing world.

Healthy island fox populations depend on people like you supporting conservation efforts. 


 


Thursday, May 16, 2024

What is Island Fox Density?

 

Density is a term used in biology to express the number of individual living things in a given area. Biologists use a defined area size–ie. a square meter, square kilometer or square hectare–to quantify density. 

A square kilometer is equivalent to the footprint of Disneyland in southern California and a square hectare is equivalent to a professional baseball field.

Understanding how many island foxes are living in a square kilometer is part of the calculation for estimating the size of an island-wide population.

At the recent Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting, land managers reported on the island fox density for their islands. There was a noticeable difference between northern and southern islands.

Northern islands are reporting considerably higher island fox density. The causes for this are not completely clear. Northern islands may benefit from less extreme weather–higher average rainfall and more moderate summer temperatures–which support diverse prey and plant food for island foxes. Northern islands also have fewer impacts from humans; Catalina Island and the two Navy islands, San Clemente and San Miguel, have roads and cars that cause the highest percentage of fatalities for island foxes. 


High density, however, can have a downside. Catalina Island has been stable for the past 10 years with a density around 9 foxes per sq km. The island with the highest density in 2023–14 foxes per sq km–was also the smallest, San Miguel Island. When density increases, individual island fox territory decreases. A smaller territory means a smaller area to find food. High density can push some individuals into habitats with fewer quality resources. San Miguel's resources are less diverse than the larger islands and there are fewer options for foxes when drought or other weather extremes occur.

 

When island foxes are living closer to each other, the possibility of disease moving rapidly through a population also becomes heightened. Parasites can spread more easily.

Understanding population density is important for calculating risks to populations and making informed conservation decisions. 

Friday, May 10, 2024

Date With A Fox - Island Fox Research with Juliann Schamel and Dr. Alexandria DeCandia

Friends of the Island Fox's Virtual Program on current island fox research.

"Date With A Fox"

with guests Juliann Schamel and Dr. Alexandra DeCandia

from Tuesday, April 30th

The April program highlighted current findings on island fox diet and microbiome. Microbiome investigations can help us understand how island foxes and island spotted skunks are using resources in the island ecosystem. Dietary investigations analyzing stable isotopes in whisker samples are revealing changes in island fox diet as their population size recovers and potential resource competition with island spotted skunks. 

Both research presenters are past recipients of Friends of the Island Fox Research Grants.

 



 

 

Dr. Alexandra DeCandia is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Biology Dept. at Georgetown University and works with the Center for Conservation Genomics at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Her work has been published in Molecular Ecology and she is currently working on a joint project with Juliann Schamel supported by Friends of the Island Fox.

 

Juliann Schamel is a Biological Science Technician working with island foxes at Channel Islands National Park and a graduate student in ecology and conservation at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Her work has been published in PLOS ONE and she presented a poster on island fox and island spotted skunk dietary overlap at the California Island Symposium. 

Informed conservation decisions for island foxes and island spotted skunks depend on scientific knowledge.


Friends of the Island Fox is currently 

accepting applications for our 2024 FIF Research Grant.


Subscribe to the FIF bi-monthly e-newsletter for invitations to upcoming "Date with a Fox" presentations.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Are Grapes Toxic to Island Foxes and Gray Foxes?


Recently, this question was posed to Friends of the Island Fox by a wildlife sanctuary that cares for gray foxes. Because gray foxes are wide-spread and considered common, little scientific research has evaluated their daily behavior, including diet. Island foxes, however, have been through periods of captive breeding when they faced near-extinction and there is a growing library of research on their diet and health.

Since island foxes are recently descended from gray foxes, it stands to reason that the two species would have similar responses to toxins. We reached out to the veterinarian members of the Island Fox Working Group and discovered there is no authoritative answer.

Tartaric acid in grapes can be toxic to domestic dogs, damaging kidney function. Since island foxes and gray foxes are part of the canine family it's reasonable to extrapolate that grapes could be toxic to foxes as well. Inquiries to toxicologists and a range of references uncovered no reputable sources that confirmed or denied that grapes are toxic to foxes (or any wild canid). "In the absence of evidence," says wildlife veterinarian and FIF Board member Jessica Sanchez, "it seems reasonable to err on the side of assuming things toxic to dogs will be toxic to foxes." Therefore, grapes, cocoa, and coffee are all substances that should be kept away from gray foxes and island foxes.

island fox in a fig tree
 

Do wild gray foxes sometimes eat grapes? Yes, one scientific paper, from the last century, reported wild grapes were found in 9.5% of gray fox stomachs. What is unknown is the comparative level of tartaric acid between wild and domestic grapes and whether or not eating grapes impaired kidney function in the wild foxes.

 

Ironically, in classical Greek and Roman literature, foxes were depicted as raiding vineyards to eat grapes. In Aesop's fables, a fox's craving for sweet grapes turns to disdain when his goal becomes unreachable. Aesop's fox, however, is a red fox and not a close relative of the gray fox and the island fox.

gray fox in a Camarillo backyard
 

Still, there are anecdotes in Lyndal Laughrin's 1980 paper "Populations and Status of the Island Fox" that recount how the number of island foxes on Santa Cruz Island in 1918 was so great, they "were destroying the grapes in the vineyards." Whether or not the foxes fared well after consuming the grapes, is not reported.

toyon berries are eaten by island foxes
 

Gray foxes and island foxes are omnivorous. Native fruit can make up more than 50% of an island fox's diet. How do island foxes process toxins found in some of the fruit they eat? Answering these questions for island foxes would also help us understand gray foxes better, and maybe other canines, too.

Friends of the Island Fox supports island fox research

Applications for the FIF 2024 Research Grant 

will be accepted through June 30, 2024  

(Thank you to J. Sanchez DVM and J. Barnes DVM for their investigation of this question.)

Friday, March 29, 2024

Fox Foto Friday - Injured Island Fox Back on Her Feet


This young female island fox was discovered during capturing of island foxes for counting and health checks with a broken rear leg. Her story is one of multiple agencies, institutions, and a community of people working together to help her survive.

Friends of the Island Fox and donors like you helped raise the $1,900 to pay for her specialized orthopedic surgery. Following her orthopedic evaluation on March 15, Julie Barnes, V.P. of Animal Care and Health at the Santa Barbara Zoo, reported that "the fracture is healing really well and no longer needs bandaging." 

March 28th and she is standing solidly on all four legs!


All island foxes are under the jurisdiction of the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW). Removing an individual from its island habitat is a major decision because once an island fox comes off of its island of origin, it can not be returned. Because island foxes evolved in isolation on the Channel Islands, they are very susceptible to diseases from the mainland. Canine distemper virus is lethal to them and nearly caused extinction on Catalina Island in 1998. Today, a minimum of 100 island foxes are vaccinated against distemper on each island annually. (Help FIF vaccinate foxes)


To protect the wild population, the injured female island fox can not return to San Nicholas Island. The CDFW has approved The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Springs as her new home. The Living Desert is an American Zoo Association accredited zoo and has cared for other island foxes in the past. She will be moving to her new home March 30th.

Currently, there are six (Update 5/23/24 - five) island foxes living in zoos on the mainland. The CDFW requires that each facility only have males or females, since no island foxes can be bred on the mainland for release on the islands.

If you can't travel to the Channel Islands, you can see island foxes at:


The Santa Barbara Zoo

Brothers, Lewis and Clark, were left abandoned pups after their mother was hit by a car on San Clemente Island. The Santa Barbara Zoo leads the zoo community's efforts toward island foxes and hosts the annual Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting. (Update: Clark passed away at 8 years old on May 17, 2024, Lewis remains healthy and on exhibit.)

California Living Museum, Bakersfield

Two sisters, from San Clemente Island, were abandoned by their parents as pups during a drought year. They were in an enclosure with a female gray fox. The only place where you can see these two species side-by-side. (Update: one sister passed away in 2023.)

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Is home to Sage, a female island fox from Catalina Island, who was separated from her parents by people as a pup, resulting in chronic health issues. She was unable to be released back into the wild and requires regular veterinary care. 



The little San Nicolas Island fox joins her five cousins as ambassadors for their wild relatives. They tell a story of how human actions can be detrimental or positive for island foxes.

The San Nicolas Island fox has a second chance because people like you came to her aid.


Friday, March 22, 2024

FIF Research Grant Application 2024


Friends of the Island Fox is currently taking applications 

through June 30 for the 

FIF 2024 Research Grant

Download Application

From the complex relationship between island foxes and island spotted skunks, to diet, microbiome impacts on health, and changing territory sizes, research projects are revealing the complexities of the Channel Island ecosystem and the role of island foxes in island ecology.

In 2024, Friends of the Island Fox is offering up to $7,000 in support to research projects benefiting greater understanding of the island fox and the Channel Island ecosystem.

 

Last year's grant recipients are using wildlife cameras to quantify island spotted skunk populations and investigating the impact of individual island fox behavior on the island ecosystem.

It's Science, for Fox Sake! And we encourage all applicants to apply.

 

2023 grant recipient, D. Thomaier

Past Research Grant Recipients and Projects

Grant Recipients are asked to provide public updates on their work - "Date with a Fox" programs, hear from the researchers

Published science on island foxes and island spotted skunks

 
Your Donations Help Fund this Important Science!

Friday, March 15, 2024

FIF 2023 Research Grant to Investigate Individual Island Fox Impact


FIF awarded a second Research Grant in 2023 to Juliann Schamel, NPS biologist and graduate student in Ecology and Conservation at University of Aberdeen, Scotland...

Juliann Schamel in the field with island fox
 

and Dr. Alexandria DeCandia, biology professor at Georgetown University...

Dr. Alexandria DeCandia
 

for their project: From Microbes to Habitats: How Individual Fox Foraging Behavior Cascades Through an Ecosystem.

Schamel and De Candia are combining their respective work in stable isotope diet analysis and microbiome research to investigate the specific interconnections between 15 male island foxes and the island ecosystem. The team says, "Recent research has revealed that the island fox displays a high level of individual specialization, from their diet, to activity patterns, to the germination rate of scat-dispersed native seeds." This work builds on stable isotope diet analysis that Schamel presented at the Channel Island Symposium that demonstrated that diet specialization is occurring on Santa Rosa Island

GPS radio collar deployed on Santa Rosa Island

The 15 island foxes to be studied were part of a territory range investigation monitoring island fox movement with GPS radio collars by FIF 2021 Research Grant recipient Katie Elder. The final collection of data occurred in December 2023 when the island foxes were recaptured and their GPS collars removed.

Combining specific daily movement data (over the course of a year) with stable isotope diet data from individual whisker samples and microbiome swabs of gut microfloral offers a unique window into the lives of these individual island foxes. 

Microbiome sample swabs
 

It's easy to assume that island foxes, as a species, have a specifically defined relationship with plants and animals in the island ecosystem. However, Schamel's island fox dietary data has revealed a great deal of individualism in dietary choice, especially when resources are abundant. Some island foxes are eating beach foods, some are fruit specialists, others prey predominantly on deer mice.

Island fox whisker sample being collected
 

This investigation will try to reveal "a more holistic understanding of island foxes," DeCandia says. "[H]ost-associated microbes are critical to ... digestion and immunity,... By linking gut microbial communities with individual diet, movement, and activity patterns, we can begin to untangle the eco-evolutionary factors shaping these island hosts, their microbes, and the ecosystem in which they live."

Comparing microbiome of island fox and island spotted skunk, A. DeCandia
 

Friends of the Island Fox is proud to invest in this cutting-edge, multidisciplinary scientific investigation that brings together academic and governmental organizations and investigators. Whisker samples will be processed and analyzed by Julianne Schamel and Seth Newsome at the Center for Stable Isotopes at the University of New Mexico. DNA from microbiome swabs will be extracted by Alexandria DeCandia at the Center for Conservation Genomics at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Undergraduate researchers at Georgetown University, University of New Mexico, and California State University Channel Islands will actively participate in sample collection, laboratory preparation, data analysis and interpretation, and co-authorship of findings. 

Your donations help grow scientific knowledge and the next generation of scientists! 

Applications for FIF's 2024 Research Grant 

will be available March 22

Friday, March 08, 2024

Stable Isotopes Document Decade of Dietary Change in Island Foxes


Juliann Schamel has been researching island fox diet using stable isotopes in whisker samples since 2018. Friends of the Island Fox has supported the processing of whisker samples through several Research Grants. In November of 2023, Schamel presented the following poster of her latest work at the California Islands Symposium.

Using Stable Isotopes to Assess a Decade of Dietary Resource Use in Two Sympatric Island Endemics: The Island Fox and the Island Spotted Skunk (link to complete poster)

Island foxes and island spotted skunks live together on two islands, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz. When island fox numbers crashed due to predation by golden eagles, island spotted skunk numbers appeared to increase dramatically. In 2011, on Santa Rosa Island, there were still fewer than 90 island foxes in the wild. During annual health checks, whisker samples were collected from both island foxes and island spotted skunks in a northern area of the island and stored for later analysis of what food resources each species was using.

In 2011, island spotted skunks out numbered island foxes in the wild. Stable isotope analysis shows that the skunks and foxes were using different resources. 

J. Schamel, 2023 poster
 

Carbon and nitrogen isotopes travel up the food chain leaving a specific isotope signature for plant and animal resources. Literally, you are what you eat and isotopes from a mammal's diet are laid down chronologically in hair or fur. A single island fox whisker can provide 5–6 months of weekly diet data. On the graph above, native terrestrial plant foods, like manzanita berries, are high in Carbon and low in Nitrogen. A deer mouse is the accumulation of its own, mostly plant diet; it has a mid-range Carbon and Nitrogen signature. In the graph above, the blue data points represent island fox diet and the orange data points represent island spotted skunk diet. 

In 2011, when island fox numbers in the wild were low, their diet tended to be higher on the food chain or trophic level: deer mice, birds and reptiles. The data suggested separate diet niches for island foxes and island spotted skunks. The skunks were eating primarily, lower level prey, like insects, and some plant foods.

J. Schamel, 2023 poster

In 2014, continuing drought influenced wildlife survival; island fox and island spotted skunks were nearly even in number on Santa Rosa Island. Island foxes expanded their diet, including marine resources, and island spotted skunks preyed more on deer mice and higher level prey. The two predators began competing for resources.

J. Schamel, 2023 poster

By 2018, the island fox population had recovered, but island spotted skunks appeared to decline in number. (Counting island spotted skunks) As island fox density increased across the island, they dramatically broadened their diet–from native fruit through a range of prey species. The spotted skunks maintained a more narrow diet, but they were now in constant competition with island foxes. What will this mean for the two species?

Schamel's work also revealed that individual island foxes are becoming specialized in their diet.

J. Schamel, 2023 poster
 

In the graphic above, each circle of data points represents an individual island fox and its diet. Some individuals appear to be specializing in fruit and insects, while others are eating predominately terrestrial prey. How is island fox diet continuing to change?

Save the date of April 30th at 6:30 pm PT 

Juliann Schamel will talk about her work on 

FIF's "Date with a Fox" webinar

sign-up for FIF's e-newsletter to receive an invitation

Measuring out a whisker sample

Whisker samples continue to be collected for both species. 

designed by island biologist, Stacy Baker

When you purchase an island spotted skunk pin

you send a sample of island spotted skunk whisker 

to the mass spectrometer to reveal stable isotopes.


Monday, February 26, 2024

You Did It! You Gave An Island Fox a Second Chance!

Thank you to our donors - near and far!

Over the past three days, you've responded with overwhelming support and raised the funds to pay for special orthopedic surgery needed for this young injured island fox. Her story

 
 
Thank you to:

  • FIF's long-time donors
  • Our Instagram followers
  • Our "X" followers especially our "Hijinkai" who love island foxes from afar in Japan

You all have helped to give this island fox a second chance on life.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Injured Island Fox Pup Gets Second Chance

 You can help this young island fox


Friends of the Island Fox is raising funds to pay for her orthopedic surgery

During the annual fall 2023 counting and island fox health checks on San Nicolas Island, biologists discovered this female pup with a recently injured right hind leg. The bones just above her foot, the metatarsal bones, had been fractured and the wound was open.

The injury was too severe for treatment on the remote Navy island. According to our friends with the U.S. Navy and the Santa Barbara Zoo: "The cause of the injury could not be determined but her chance for survival without intervention was minimal due [to] the risk of infection and septicemia posed by the open fracture. Releasing her without treatment with such an injury was determined to be both inhumane and life threatening."

island fox in the wild on Santa Cruz Island

Removing an island fox from the island where it lives is a big decision. Having evolved in isolation on their specific islands, once an island fox leaves an island it can not return. The biosecurity risk of introducing disease from the mainland to the wild population is too great.

The young fox was just old enough to be dispersing from her parents. With treatment and several months of observed convalescence, she had a good chance for full recovery. The cost of treatment, however, was being removed from the wild for the rest of her life.

 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) gave special authorization to transport the state-protected species off of the island and off of the Navy's federal lands into state jurisdiction. She was flown off of San Nicolas Island and transferred to the Santa Barbara Zoo, which has "extensive experience in caring for orphaned and injured island foxes." A pair of brother San Clemente Island foxes who were abandoned by their parents during a drought year, currently live at the Santa Barbara Zoo. (Lewis and Clark)

In consultation with Dr. Steve Klause, a veterinary orthopedic surgeon, the Santa Barbara Zoo veterinary team initiated a conservative treatment plan. While the little fox responded well, the fracture did not initially heal as hoped. 


The Zoo team reached out to Friends of the Island Fox. The little female island fox needed special orthopedic surgical repair for internal fixation of the fracture. Could we help with some of the unexpected costs? 

FIF determined to raise the $1,900 needed.


On December 16, 2023, the little fox had her surgery and Dr. Julie Barnes Vice-President of Animal Care and Health tells us, she is doing well. The island fox still has several months of recuperation before she is fully healed. The Santa Barbara Zoo says "Once fully recovered, the fox will be transferred to a permanent home ... at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facility where she will serve as an ambassador for the species - the first known San Nicolas Island fox to do so!"

Protecting island foxes is a community effort and saving this individual island fox is no different. People from the U.S. Navy, Santa Barbara Zoo, specialist veterinarians, and FIF are all investing in the future of this island fox.

You can HELP Too! 

Join our list of donors supporting this island fox

  • Recycling for Island Foxes and the Planet: $200
  • school children in Thousand Oaks, CA: $300+
  • FIF Instagram followers: $125
  • FIF "X" followers, including in Japan: $360
  • FIF returning donors: $1,190