Friday, March 22, 2019

Island Fox Whiskers Go to the Lab

Schamel with island fox following the fox's health check.
FIF Research Grant recipient Juliann Schamel has been collecting island fox whiskers to study the diet of island foxes through stable isotope analysis. Her research project is in conjunction with Dr. Seth Newsome and the Center for Stable Isotopes at the University of New Mexico.

Juliann says "Once I learned how stable isotope ecology works and what we could learn about island fox ecology from this method...I was hooked. The invisible chemical world can reveal fascinating connections within food webs and beyond." More on stable isotopes

"This year, with the support of Friends of the Island Fox and [another conservation fund], we are able to investigate a variety of conservation-geared questions about island fox diet on San Miguel and Santa Rosa Islands. We are looking into how diet differs among habitats on the islands, among demographic groups, and between island fox and island skunk. We are also assessing if and how fox diet has changed over time (2010–present) in response to things like density changes in the fox population and rainfall (drought conditions). This last question may have important implications for the ecology of the acanthocephalan worm, a novel parasite that appeared in the San Miguel Island fox in 2012 (at the beginning of the drought) and has spread through the fox population."

The spiny-headed worm, a species of Acanthocephala, has been implicated in the low population numbers on San Miguel in recent years. Parasite threatening San Miguel Island Fox.

"By using whisker samples that are linked to a known individual with a known history within the island fox monitoring program," Schamel says, "we are able to track the diet of individuals over time to see if and how their diet may have fluctuated during the drought or as they moved to a new habitat."

A number of whisker specimens were collected this winter, including in the beach/dune habitat on Miguel and Rosa where island foxes are not typically counted. This will provide data on dietary resources in the marine adjacent habitat that has not been collected before. Schamel says "I am very excited to run these samples!"

Collected whisker samples are sorted, inventoried, and cataloged. Once they are cleaned, rinsed, and dried, each individual whisker is placed in vial.

Newsome and his lab manager at UNM use a razor and tweezers to divide each whisker into sub-samples: 0.2mg (weighed precisely with a micro-scale).

Schamel explains these sub-samples are fed into "the mass spectrometer, which consumes the samples and spits out data on carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios." The ratios are compared to a library of food resources and their known isotope ratios. "The FIF funding is actually paying the mass spectrometer for its time."

Schamel in the field on Santa Rosa Island.
So far ~100 island fox samples from Santa Rosa have been analyzed from a variety of habitats. In addition ~200 island fox whisker samples from San Miguel have been analyzed from 2010–2012, before the drought. Schamel will be at UNM this spring working on samples from 2014–2016. "There are many samples from the same individuals across this time frame, which will be exciting to see!"

Juliann Schamel hopes to present preliminary data at the 2019 Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting in May. 

Research like Juliann Schamel's is vital to understanding island fox health and long-term survival.  This research is only possible with donations from people like you.

Applications for the 2019 Friends of the Island Fox Research Grant will be available on on April 15, 2019.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Fox Foto Friday - Island Foxes in the Wild

an island fox during March on Santa Cruz
It's hard for people to believe that you can easily see an island fox in the wild on Santa Cruz Island. This island fox was walking across the dirt road near the visitor center. It was happy to give us time to take its photo.

The unique relationship between island foxes and people began around 9,000 years ago. The Chumash and other native peoples living on the islands regarded the island fox as an important neighbor. They did not hunt the island fox or confine it as a pet.

People are surprised when they view wild island foxes going about their daily lives with little regard for the human visitors. Maintaining this relationship means respecting the island fox and its right to live safe from threat or interference on its island home.

When Visiting Island Foxes
More on Santa Cruz Island 

Friday, March 08, 2019

Island Journal - A Visit to San Miguel Island

A visit to San Miguel Island is a rare opportunity. Island foxes are few and the land is windswept. Experience a firsthand trip to this remote Channel Island.

Island Journal - San Miguel Island 

San Miguel Island lies at the top of the Southern California Bight, 26 miles from Point Conception. The western most of the Channel Islands, San Miguel receives the full force of the cold California current sweeping past its shores.

Recently, I went on a rarely offered day trip to San Miguel to observe firsthand how the island is recovering from years of ranching and to get a feeling of what island life must endure to survive there. 

After a night of light rain and distant thunder, the morning was overcast, but dry. On the boat trip out, the winds were light as was the swell.  The crossing was direct to San Miguel, approximately a 3-hour trip. About an hour out of Ventura, we spotted the blow of a Humpback whale.  The Islander Packers' boat took time to observe the mighty cetacean feeding in the channel.  A few minutes later, we observed 2 more blows further out.

Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island slowly passed by on our port side. Eventually, San Miguel came into view. 
There is no pier on San Miguel which means we landed by skiff. It's common to have large breakers at the beach on Miguel, which can easily swamp a skiff. Fortunately, the seas remained uncharacteristically calm. We arrived on schedule at 11:15 with 110 people on-board and 2 skiffs. Each skiff  holds 6 passengers. It took approximately 30 minutes to get everyone ashore. Once on the island we had  the mandatory island briefing by the National Park Service (NPS) naturalist.

San Miguel island is owned by the US Navy and managed by the NPS.  During WWII and through to the 1970s, San Miguel was used as a Navy bombing range. To protect visitors from any hazards that might still exist (the Navy did a complete survey in 2016 and found no unexploded ordnance), and to protect the natural resources, visitors must hike in escorted groups. However, you can freely explore the mile-long beach at Cuyler Harbor and hike up to the nearby ranger station and campground. 

To access the island interior, we hiked from the beach up the steep Nidever Canyon for approximately a half mile, gaining 600 feet in the process. The canyon is a great example of how the island is recovering. There is an incredible display of native vegetation; very healthy coastal sagebrush and coastal bluff scrub plant communities with coreopsis, buckwheat, and dudleya. Once on top, we were afforded terrific views of Cuyler Harbor. 

Our instructions were to be back on the beach by 2:30 to begin the skiffing process back to the boat for a 3:30 departure back to Ventura, which didn’t leave much time for exploring. I decided to check out the Cabrillo Monument and wander near the ranger station.

At the ranger station, I ran into one of the fox biologists that I know, so wandering became gabbing about fox whiskers and how ice plant travels the digestive system of the fox much like celery travels ours. Perhaps TMI, but hey...that’s what we talk about and that’s one way information gets passed on.

Talking scat passes the time quickly and I had to head back to the beach. On the beach, a juvenile elephant seal was thermoregulating. They're one of the pinniped species which call San Miguel Island home.

The route back to Ventura Harbor took us along the north side of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands with a stop in Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. The winds remained light and sea was like glass.

We were treated to numerous pods of common dolphins, numbering in the thousands, as well as two minke whales, the smallest of the great whales.

We also spotted the same humpback whale, very close to where we spotted it in the morning. (Humpbacks can be identified by the markings on their tail flukes). The Santa Barbara channel did not disappoint! 

No fox sightings to report, but I did see the tell-tale signs of their presence, chiefly scat, littered about in typical fox fashion. 

The day to San Miguel didn’t become the island exploration I first believed it would, but instead became a time to develop a deeper appreciation for the whole ecosystem that encompasses the Channel Islands. An ecosystem where the tiniest zooplankton feeds the mightiest whales. An ecosystem where man’s impact can have a profound negative impact or bring a species back from the brink of extinction. - Mike Watling, FIF Advisory Board

Friday, March 01, 2019

Fox Foto Friday - Spot An Island Fox?

Island foxes are rare creatures, yet sometimes they show up in unexpected places!

Take a second look, this island fox is on the calf of a devoted island fox supporter. It even has accurate island fox tracks. Tracking An Island Fox

We love art with island foxes. Check out:

island fox sculpture and carving 
Island Fox and the Art of an Ecosystem - graphite
student art project - felt
student collage and conservation projects

How will you show your support for island foxes?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Island Fox M152 Has a Health Check

When M152 was fitted with his refurbished radio collar, he also received a health check.

During the health check he wore a special hood. Having his eyes covered makes the health check less stressful and helps the island fox remain calm.

M152 was:
Weighed - to compare his weight with previous years and to provide an overall view of the population across the island. How much did M152 weigh?

Blood Sample - A sample of his blood was taken to look for evidence of exposure to disease. In 2016-2017 blood samples documented adenovirus, commonly called "kennel cough," as it moved across Catalina Island infecting 85% of the island fox population. (See 2018 Update) Fortunately, no island fox deaths were attributed to the virus, but it demonstrated how fast an infectious disease can spread through island foxes. Testing blood samples provides an early warning of dangerous diseases like canine distemper, parvo, and more. It can also indicate whether disease might be influencing low pup survival. Some of M152's blood was also set aside to test for specific white blood cells. A high number of these cells may be evidence of a parasite infection. Some of the blood sample will also be used for DNA studies to determine the familial relationships between individual foxes. How are the pups in M152's territory related to him? All of this is above and beyond simple monitoring. 
Your donations help make this health research possible.

Disease - M152 showed no signs of disease. He appeared healthy.

M152 courtesy of Channel Islands National Park
Whisker Sample - A whisker sample was taken for an important research study on diet funded by Friends of the Island Fox.

Tick Testing - M152 was examined for fleas and ticks. Luckily he was tick free! But not all island foxes are so lucky. 
small red dot is a tick on the fox's ear

Tick-borne disease is a new threat to island foxes. Two infectious diseases carried by ticks have recently been discovered on the Channel Islands: Lyme disease and relapsing fever. Ticks found on island foxes, like the one on the back of an island fox's ear, pictured at right, are being removed and tested for disease. This is important research for island foxes and people. 

How many ticks are carrying disease? How many island foxes are infected? Lyme disease seriously impacts dogs; is it impacting island foxes? The tick is removed and tested to see if it is a disease carrier.
Tick after removal and prepared for testing.
Tick-borne disease is a new threat.
We need your help to fund testing of ticks.  

Removing the tick is also beneficial to the island fox.
Island fox ear after tick is removed.

Island foxes need your help. 

Friends of the Island Fox funds radio collars
proactive health testing, and vital research

With your continued support, we can hold onto success and keep island foxes like M152 healthy into the future. 
Please donate today.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Island Fox M152 Has a History

Island Fox M152
Each island fox counted across the Channel Islands during summer/fall monitoring is a documented individual. They each receive a microchip tag (or PIT tag) like your dog or cat. Why is that important? Why does FIF help fund ID microchips?

When island fox M152 received his radio collar this fall, he already had a documented history.

- He was first captured in 2014, when he was a young adult (estimated 1-2 years old). Island foxes live to be 8-12 years old in the wild. M152 is an adult male in his prime.

- He was living in the same area four years ago, which tells us that he is an adult male with an established territory in this location. Seven pups were seen in this same area in 2018. There is a good possibility that M152 is their father or grandfather. DNA comparison of blood samples could document their relationship. A blood sample was taken from M152.

M152's territory includes hillsides and coastal beaches, lucky fox

- 2014 was a drought year and M152 weighed 4.5 lbs (he was considered "thin"). In 2018 he had beefed up to 4.9 lbs (a weight considered "healthy"). A half pound might not seem like much of a difference, but when you are tiny that's almost 10% of your body weight.

island fox chin whiskers
- What has made the difference in M152's weight? Is he just eating better this year or is he eating a different diet than in 2014? Four years ago, a whisker sample was taken from M152. This year a whisker sample was collected again. Friends of the Island Fox has funded a Research Grant to evaluate these whisker samples. Whiskers record what the fox has been eating over a four to six month period. Isotopes from the food items, prey or plant matter, are laid down in the whisker as it grows out. M152 may help us learn what an island fox needs to eat to be healthy and successfully parent pups.

Friends of the Island Fox funds ID microchips, blood testing

You are the important partner in all of these efforts. 
When you donate to Friends of the Island Fox you are helping
 M152 and his pups have a safer future.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Island Fox M152 Gets a Radio Collar!

photo courtesy of CINP / NPS
Meet M152! 

This male island fox just got a radio collar funded by donations to Friends of the Island Fox.

Do you see it? 

It's that bit of black just under his chin and above the biologist's gloved hand.

This radio collar will allow biologists to monitor M152 without interfering with his normal wild life. He can be checked-on from a distance by a technician with an antennae and receiver or even from a small plane flying over the island. 

Refurbished radio collars - headed to island foxes
M152's radio-tracking collar emits a unique radio-signal frequency just for him. 

Hear - Normal radio collar

His collar locates his position and reports that he is moving around normally. If M152 should stop moving for 4-6 hours–not move at all–the radio collar will give off a different signal. Hear - Distress alert from radio collar The rapid beep alerts biologists that something might have happened to him. The radio collar then enables biologists to hone in on the little fox body so they can find out what has happened.

M152's newly refurbished radio collar will provide information on his activity for the next 2-3 years.

Radio-tracking collars are vitally important to monitoring island fox populations across the islands. In 2018, donors like you helped Friends of the Island Fox fund a record 25 radio collars:

On each island approximately 20 radio collars need to be refurbished or purchased new each year. 

In 2019 FIF's GOAL is to refurbish 20-30 radio collars 
and purchase 10 new collars

Won't you help with this vital effort to monitor island foxes! 
You've helped us save island foxes from extinction. 
Please donate to help keep island foxes safe and healthy.

Stay tuned. M152 also got a health check. 
Find out what we learned about him. 


Friday, September 28, 2018

Fox Foto Friday - Some GOOD NEWS!

Friends of the Island Fox is thrilled to announce: 

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo Conservation Fund 
has chosen FIF to receive a grant of $3,200 annually
for the next three years 
to help fund island fox conservation!

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo has been a long-time partner in island fox conservation. Since 2006, they have supported a variety of efforts to save island foxes–from radio collars to testing for disease. 2013-2018 5-year grant from FCZ.

This new grant will be emphasizing island fox health.

Friday, September 21, 2018

FIF Research Grant to Investigate Island Fox Diet Through Whiskers

photo courtesy of P. Bronstein
Island foxes have lots of long black whiskers. These specialized hairs hold important information on diet that could inform decisions on island fox conservation.

Friends of the Island Fox is happy to announce: 

Juliann Schamel is the recipient of the first FIF Research Grant

Schamel is a Biological Science Technician at Channel Islands National Park and the $5,000 grant will help fund research on "The Channel Island Food Web–A Decade of Dietary Resource Use in Channel Island Fox: Implications for Reproduction, Recruitment, and Resilience in a Changing Climate."

It's a big title reflecting the broad range of important data that may be revealed. 

Schamel's work will build on important past research.

island fox scat (or poop)
In 2009, researchers collected island fox scat samples to look at seasonal diet across all six islands. Their 2014 paper revealed diet varied from island to island and included a higher frequency of insects and fruit than expected. They cautioned that islands with poor native plant diversity offered fewer food options for island foxes in the event of drought. 

photo courtesy of P. Bronstein
Just as the science warned, during the consecutive years of the recent drought, island foxes were challenged to find enough food on San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands. Decline of San Nicolas Island fox. During this time a new parasite entered the San Miguel Island fox's diet causing fox deaths.

While scat successfully reveals visual items, (insect exoskeletons, cactus fruit skin and seeds), it may not visually capture everything in the fox's diet. Also, scat data is limited to recording diet in an individual over a short time period, a few days.

In 2010, building on work done on the San Joaquin kit fox, a small sample of island fox whiskers were investigated using stable isotope analysis. 

You are what you eat. Food items (prey and plant) have their own isotope fingerprint. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes consumed by the fox are laid down in the hair shaft documenting an individual's diet over months. 

Since 2010, biologists have been gathering whisker samples from individual island foxes during health checks on the northern islands. These samples have been cataloged by year and with individual fox identification. 

FIF is excited to support Schamel's research using whiskers because it has the potential to:
  • Compare diet between successful mothers and unsuccessful mothers
  • Discover dietary differences between coastal living island foxes and interior living foxes
  • Document changes in diet over the past 9 years, through the drought and as the fox populations have grown
  • Possibly reveal prey items that are a vector for the intestinal parasite on San Miguel Island which has caused fox deaths
Whiskers are amazing! Not only do they offer an opportunity to invest in greater knowledge about the secret lives of island foxes, whiskers grow back and their collection is non-invasive. 

FIF will be bringing you more on Juliann Schamel and her research as her work progresses.

Thank you to all of the 2018 grant applicants for sharing your research goals with FIF. There is so much more to learn about island fox health, behavior, and interactions with other species.

Application for the 2019 Research Grant
will be available April 15, 2019

Friday, September 14, 2018

Children Helping Island Foxes

Help for island foxes comes from many places. Recently Friends of the Island Fox received this wonderful letter from a concerned student.

Working with her school friends and family, Autumn raised $155 dollars to help island foxes. Her donation can: 
No effort to help island foxes is too small. When we all work together, we can make big things happen. 

Autumn joins our growing group of Island Fox Ambassadors - she is helping tell the island fox's story to her community and working to keep island foxes healthy and safe into the future.

Yared raised funds and then traveled all the way from Virginia to visit the island fox.

Meet some other Island Fox Ambassadors:
At the Buckley School students had a huge bake sale and one student designed and sold a T-shirt. 

You can become an Island Fox Ambassador too. Individuals, classrooms, grades, even schools and organizations have become Island Fox Ambassadors.

Island Fox Ambassadors:
  • raise awareness about the island fox
  • they work on a service project to benefit island fox conservation
  • they share their efforts with others
Service projects can raise funding, contribute to habitat restoration, or develop a conservation project to help island foxes and other wildlife (such as an effort to vaccinate local pets so they don't transmit disease to wildlife). 

Find out more about becoming an Island Fox Ambassador contact FIF at