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Monday, May 16, 2016

Restoring Native Habitat for Island Foxes

Last Saturday, Friends of the Island Fox and Channel Islands Restoration (a native plant restoration group) partnered up to remove invasive plants on Santa Cruz Island. 

Island foxes depend on a healthy native plant community for food and shelter. To survive, they have evolved to be highly omnivorous–eating a range of native fruit, insects, and other small prey

The island deer mouse may be food for the island fox, but in turn it depends on seeds from buckwheat, giant coreopsis, and other native island plants. Island foxes are directly and indirectly impacted when the native plant community is compromised.

Introduced species like this oyster plant (Tragopogon) can quickly invade hillsides pushing out native plants. Though the dandelion-like globe of seeds may look beautiful in the sunlight, it does not provide food or shelter for island wildlife and it is about to spread seed far and wide with the next good breeze.

On a mission to help restore the island's natural habitat and with grant support from LUSH Cosmetics, volunteers headed out to make a positive difference.

We learned about native plants on a hike to Cavern Point, then snipped our way through a quarter-mile section of Scorpion Canyon. 

We filled trash bags with the seed heads, to decrease the invasive plant's reproduction this spring/summer. It was amazing how heavy just the seed heads were as we filled our bags.

And of course, we were thanked by visits from several island foxes during the course of the day.

Smiling faces and black bags filled with invasive-plant seed heads being removed from the Channel Island ecosystem. It feels good to make a positive difference. If you're interested in participating in a plant restoration trip send us an e-mail at We hope to go out on a second trip sometime this year.
Thanks to a great day of team work! More bags behind us!

Monday, May 09, 2016

"Fox-Saver Bins" Saving Channel Island Foxes on Catalina

What's so special about this trash bin?

As Channel Island foxes recovered on Santa Catalina Island, their growing numbers brought a new challenge. Old and open trash cans were posing a double threat to fox survival

Island foxes attracted to available trash were being hit by cars on their way to trash cans and also becoming trapped inside, sometimes with lethal consequences.

The solution was "Fox-Saver" bins, sealed receptacles built to only be opened by human hands. In 2015, Friends of the Island Fox donors raised $6,000 to fund three of these special trash bins. One student created an entire T-shirt campaign to support the effort and raised nearly $1,000.

New "Fox-Saver" bin in Bird Park, photo courtesy of CIC
The trash bins have been install just in time for the summer season, when Catalina's parks and open areas are visited by over a million tourists. This "Fox-Saver" bin has been placed in Bird Park (one of the locations which had claimed the most island fox lives). You can see the two open trash cans that were then removed, on the left side of the photo. The two additional "Fox-Saver" bins, plus a fourth sponsored by island efforts, have also been put in place in the park, ready to secure trash and protect island foxes.

This was a joint effort of island fox supporters of all ages from across the country. Protecting this rare species requires all of us working together. If you visit Catalina this summer, take a look at the positive change that can be accomplished with group effort. Thank You to our friends at the Catalina Island Conservancy, the Island Company, the City of Avalon, and everyone helping make Catalina a safer home for island foxes.

Why were Catalina's island foxes faced with near extinction?
Challenges faced by island foxes on Catalina Island:

Monday, April 04, 2016

Meet an Island Fox Ambassador - Tigran Nahabedian

While Channel Island foxes have made a remarkable recovery from near extinction (US Fish and Wildlife Announces Recovery of Island Fox), they continue to be rare animals living in small island ecosystems. To survive into the future island foxes need all of us looking out for them.

Tigran Nahabedian has become an active Island Fox Ambassador, helping to spread information about the island fox and working to restore island habitat. Tigran, how did you get interested in the island fox?

Tigran Nahabedian and parents

photo courtesy of Kevin Schafer
I first met the Channel Island fox when I was 5 years old. I took an Island Packers boat to Santa Cruz Island; that will always be a special trip for me because it was on that trip I earned my first Junior Ranger Badge. Very soon after we arrived I saw an island fox resting among some old farming machinery. I thought he was so small and really cute. The island fox is my favorite animal in the National Parks.
The Channel Island fox lives on six of the eight California Islands and it is the only carnivore that occurs only in California and nowhere else. The island fox evolved from the grey fox, but it has fewer tail vertebrae, a shorter tail and is much smaller than the grey fox. They are significantly smaller than most house cats! 
The island fox subspecies on the Northern Channel Islands and Catalina are [currently] listed as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. (Why the island fox became endangered) ...This is the fastest recovery of a mammal under the Endangered Species Act, but it is not all good news because there has been a significant population decline on San Nicholas because of long term drought conditions and frail health of the foxes and the island vegetation.
Tigran and his mother showing an eagle radio transmitter to other children.
I got to help the island fox by working at a booth with the Friends of the Island Fox at the Santa Barbara Zoo for Channel Islands Fox Awareness Day. I spoke to almost 500 people about the fox. I answered questions about the island fox, the Channel Islands, Junior Ranger Badges, Buddy Bison and the eagles at the Channel Islands. This was really special to me because I was able to speak to many children about the fox and the Channel Islands. 
Very few of the children I spoke to have been to the Channel Islands so the zoo was a great place for them to connect to the island fox. If you are near Santa Barbara or coming for a visit you can meet Beau at the Santa Barbara Zoo, he was abandoned as a pup and the US Navy rescued him and brought him to the zoo. He is so cute!
 You can help the Channel Island fox too. You can write reports on the Channel Island fox for your school projects to raise awareness of the fox. You can also donate funds to help the Channel Island fox recovery. You could sell Valentine's Day grams, used books, have a bake sale or lemonade sale, wash cars or you could use some of your allowance from chores and donate the money at or You can also visit the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Channel Islands National Park or another event put on by the Friends of the Island Fox and buy one of the really cool Friends of the Island Fox T-shirts. - TIGRAN

Friends of the Island Fox T-shirts come in adult sizes small - extra large and cost $15 + postage. For information on T-shirts contact Pat Meyer at

Island Fox Ambassadors come in all sizes. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Insight on Channel Island Fox Territory Size & Habitat Use

A newly published study on Home-Range Size and Habitat Selection by Male Island Foxes (Urocyon littoralis) in a Low-Density Population by Elizabeth M. Drake, et al. reveals the largest documented territory ranges for male island foxes and new information regarding use of habitat at specific times of day. 

Prior to the catastrophic decline of island foxes on Santa Rosa (1996-2000), the population numbered over 1,700 individuals with a density of ~4 adult foxes per square km. Recovery on Santa Rosa was a slower process than on the other islands and this provided an opportunity to study territory size as the population recovered. The new study was carried out on Santa Rosa Island from 2009-2010, when the population was under 400 individuals and the density of adult foxes was less than 1 per square km. 

Santa Rosa Island
Drake found that in this period of low-density, male Santa Rosa Island foxes averaged territories of 3.39 square km in size. This is considerably larger than the less than .5 square km territories documented both on San Clemente (Sanchez, 2012) and on Santa Cruz prior to the population decline (Roemer et al., 2001). It is also much larger than the ~1 square km territories found on Santa Catalina when the population was well into recovery (King et al., 2014). 

While it is not surprising that island foxes expand territory size when there is less population density, the need for resources does not appear to be the driving force. During this period of fewer foxes, resources were plentiful. Therefore less territory was actually needed to provide adequate food for an individual island fox.

Drake found little overlap of territory between the individual males. In most cases, only minor overlap occurred at territorial borders, suggesting vigorous protection of territory.

Since Drake's data collection the population on Santa Rosa has more than doubled. As the density increases will the lack of territory overlap remain constant and will territory size decrease? Additional study is needed to answer these and other questions.

The study also looked at use of specific habitat. Surprisingly, there did not seem to be habitat types that were more desirable. But they did find significant data on use of habitat type at different times. 

The researchers found island foxes avoided bare landscape and grasslands during the day, but spent a significant amount of time in these areas at night. This use of specific terrain at night may suggest nocturnal hunting for deer mice and insects. Daylight hours were more typically spent in scrub and woodland areas. 

Link to Full Paper

Referenced papers above:
King, J. L., C. L. Duncan, and D. K. Garcelon. 2014. Status of the Santa Catalina Island fox 13 years after its decline. Western North American Naturalist. 7:382396.

Roemer, G. W., D. A. Smith, D. K. Garcelon, R. K. Wayne. 2001. The behavioural ecology of the island fox (Urocyon littoralis). Journal of Zoology London 255:114.

Sanchez, J. N. 2012. Spatial ecology of disease spread in the island fox. M.S. thesis, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California 

Friday, February 12, 2016

USFWS Announces Recovery of Channel Island Fox

photo courtesy of Kim Michaels
Today is a banner day for island foxes and for those who have worked so long for their recovery and long-term conservation, including Friends of the Island FoxThe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service(USFWS) proposed today that the three subspecies of island foxes on the northern Channel Islands be delisted; that is, that they be taken off the Federal list of "threatened" and "endangered" species, because they are recovered. The USFWS  has determined that those subspecies meet the criteria for complete delisting, as set forth in their island fox recovery plan. The  USFWS also proposed that island foxes on Santa Catalina Island be downlisted, meaning that their status would change from "endangered" to "threatened."

photo courtesy of Channel Islands National Park
Four island fox subspecies were listed as "endangered" in 2004 because of impacts from an unexpected predator (golden eagles) on the northern Channel Islands and canine distemper virus on Santa Catalina Island. More than a decade of recovery actions conducted by a host of organizations and individuals, in a cooperative conservation effort that now serves as model for species conservation, has resulted in one of the quickest recoveries, ever, of an endangered species.  Most species stay on the list for about 25 years and the island fox will exit after a mere 12 years on the list. The quick recovery is a testament to the effectiveness of the recovery actions, which included captive breeding and reintroduction of island foxes, capture and relocation of golden eagles, vaccination of foxes against distemper, and larger ecosystem recovery actions of bald eagle restoration and nonnative ungulate removal (pigs, deer and elk).

photo courtesy Catalina Island Conservancy
What happens next? Today’s action by the  USFWS is a proposed rule; after a period of public comment, the  USFWS will publish a final rule which actually takes the three northern island fox subspecies (in Channel Islands National Park) off the list, and upgrades the status of the Santa Catalina Island fox from "endangered" to "threatened." That final rule will likely be published later in 2016, perhaps as soon as several months from now. We’ll keep you posted on the progress of this momentous action! 

We at Friends of the Island Fox (a program of the Channel Islands Park Foundation), with your help and support, have been working toward this goal of island fox recovery since our inception in 2005. After official recovery, we will still work for the long-term conservation of this special species. Its small population size and restricted range make it vulnerable to catastrophic mortality causes such as canine disease, and it faces unknown impacts from global climate change; island foxes will always need to be monitored closely to detect and mitigate future mortality causes. With your help, we’ll continue to be on the job!

Tim Coonan, Island Fox Program Director 

photo courtesy of Melissa Baffa
Link to USFWS Official Press Release regarding Delisting of the Channel Island Fox

Link to USFWS Island Fox Recovery Plan  

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Channel Island Fox Awareness Day at Santa Barbara Zoo

Take your valentine to see a Channel Island fox!

February 14, 2016
11 AM - 3 PM

Come Celebrate
Channel Island Fox Awareness Day
at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Friends of the Island Fox will have two booth locations during the Santa Barbara Zoo's celebration.

  • Challenge yourself to put the island fox's ecosystem in balance
  • Compare a Channel Island fox to an African fennec
  • Participate in our Discovering Science activity to answer a question regarding the human sense of smell 
  • Create in fox-themed crafts
  • Discover information about the island fox's home in Channel Islands National Park  
  • Support Channel Island fox conservation: Friends of the Island Fox T-shirts & pins will be available for purchase
Channel Island fox at Santa Barbara Zoo
 SEE LIVE FOXES (the following events are planned for the day)
  • 11:30 AM - Keeper Talk at Fennec Exhibit
  • 12:30 PM - Meet "Beau" the Channel Island Fox on Amphitheater Stage
  • 1:30  PM - Training Session at Channel Island Fox Exhibit
  • 2:00 PM - Enrichment for the Island Fox, at Exhibit
  • 2:30 PM - Keeper Talk at Channel Island Fox Exhibit
Fennecs at Santa Barbara Zoo

Make it a sweet day with the Channel Island fox.

All activities and programs are included with regular admission.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Support for Channel Island Fox Conservation

Carpenteria Family School Island Fox Ambassadors
The successful recovery of  Channel Island foxes from near extinction has been supported by the efforts of a broad range of people. 

When we open the mail and find a letter like this, we take heart that island foxes and the natural world have a future.

It just takes determination and action to become an Island Fox Ambassador.
Every effort helps to support healthy populations of Channel Island foxes. How will you help in 2016?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ear Tumors Decreased in Catalina Island Foxes

The good news keeps coming for Channel Island foxes. Research published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE highlights the successful treatment of a serious cancer threat in the Santa Catalina Island fox.

Catalina Island foxes suffered a catastrophic decline following the introduction of Canine Distemper Virus in the late 1990s. As their population began to recover a new challenge threatened their survival: cancer. Fatal cancerous tumors, which developed in the ear canal, were discovered in a high percentage of the small surviving Catalina population.

FIF first reported on this threat in 2006 and 2007 (mysterious cancer). A new research paper details that between 2001 and 2008 nearly half of all adult Catalina Island foxes were found to have nodule-like tumors present in their ear canals and approximately two-thirds of these tumors were cancerous.

In the search to unravel the cause, it was discovered that nearly all island foxes with the tumors were also infected with ear mites. Veterinarians from UC Davis and biologists with the Catalina Island Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies hypothesized that treating the ear mites might reduce the irritation in infested foxes and therefore reduce inflammation. If the ear mites could be controlled or eliminated perhaps the progression to disease could be reduced.

Catalina Island fox receiving health check
Data collected during annual island fox counting and health checks determined the prevalence of the cancer (Ceruminous gland carcinoma) in the wild population. Such detailed disease analysis in wild animals is rarely possible. Once the prevalence of the disease was known throughout the population, a study protocol was implemented in 2009. During annual health checks randomly selected wild island foxes were treated with a topical medication to kill ear mites. Six months later treated and untreated individuals were reevaluated. ID microchips used on Channel Island foxes enabled biologists to accurately follow individual animals.

photo courtesy of M. Baffa
As the treatment study recounts, ear mite infection declined dramatically in treated wild island foxes. Continued annual treatment resulted in a reduction in ear canal irritation and decline in cancerous tumors. Not only did infected individual island foxes benefit, but transmission of ear mites to the next generation was dramatically reduced. Before the treatment study, nearly 90% of Catalina Island fox pups handled by biologists were found to carry ear mites transferred to them from their parents. 2015 health checks documented only 15% of the year's pups carried ear mites.

Breaking the cycle of ear mite infestation, irritation, cancer, and transmission to other foxes is good news for Catalina Island foxes.  It is also an example of the interconnection between various island fox conservation efforts. Annual monitoring and health checks, ID microchips, various conservation entities working together, these are all pieces of successful island fox recovery.

Why this subspecies of island fox is prone to cancerous ear tumors when foxes on other islands are not, remains unknown. Further research and genetic studies may offer new insight.

Read the Full Papers:
Prevalence of the disease:

Controlling the disease risk factors:      

Monday, November 16, 2015

500 Island Foxes Protected Against Canine Distemper Virus

Canine Distemper poses a serious threat to endangered Channel Island fox populations across all six islands where they live.

Thank You! 
to everyone who donated and helped us reach our goal of


Introduced disease is a major concern for these isolated populations. Working as a community of concerned citizens, you have helped to assure that even if catastrophic disease is introduced 100 individual island foxes will be protected from disease on each island.

 The annual counting of Channel Island foxes and providing of health checks has recently concluded for the 2015 year. See what it's like to work as a field biologist counting island foxes. 

The biologists will be taking the data they have collected this fall to estimate island-wide population numbers and trends. We know that drought has impacted some island fox populations. We will see if scattered spring and summer rains improved island resources.

Thank you again to everyone who helped support FIF's 2015 vaccination fundraiser. 

Working Together We Are Saving the Channel Island Fox.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Uncovering the Impacts of Population Decline on Disease Immunity in Channel Island Foxes by Nicole Adams

(Thank you to our guest blogger University of Southern California graduate student Nicole Adams)

Besides being adorable, why should we care about the island fox?

You probably know the story of the island foxes–that they suffered great population declines in the last two and a half decades. Over three years the northern islands’ fox populations declined 96-99% due to hyperpredation by goldeneagles. (In other words, unusually large numbers of island foxes were killed for food by golden eagles.) At the same time, on the eastern end of Santa Catalina Island there was a 90% population decrease in one year due to a canine distemper virus outbreak.

Fortunately, rigorous captive breeding programs were swiftly and effectively put in place to save the foxes from sure extinction on some of the islands. Island fox estimates as of 2014 show substantial population recovery. A conservation success story! This is great news for the stability of the Channel Island ecosystem, but should we declare victory and stop worrying about the foxes?

photo courtesy of Kevin Schaffer
I don’t think so. The number of foxes has increased, but such severe population declines can have lasting effects on the genetics of a population. Important questions remain. How much genetic diversity was lost due to these crashes? What type of genetic diversity was lost? Which genes were changed as a result? These questions are crucial to answer because genetic diversity allows the foxes to adapt to their ever-changing environment.

Foxes are continually facing health threats such as those caused by introduced species. Known health concerns in the island fox populations include a number of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that cause diseases. On Catalina, earmites in the foxes often lead to ear tumors. And a new pathogen, a spiny worm, is currently causing fox fatalities on San Miguel.

It is difficult to know when another outbreak like the one on Santa Catalina Island will occur, what the next pathogen will be, or how much genetic diversity will be lost. So it’s important that the fox populations are monitored for the presence of known pathogens and the emergence of new ones. Monitoring for pathogens can be easily done by non-invasive sampling, which allows useful animal material to be collected while causing the least amount of stress on the animal. Therefore, I am monitoring pathogens in fox populations by collecting scat samples, a smelly but non-invasive sampling technique.

Catalina Island fox sitting next to its deposited specimen at USC's Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies; Photo courtesy of Nicole Adams

I received scat samples from all of the six inhabited islands as well as from captive foxes in zoos. I extracted all available DNA out of the scat samples including that from the fox, bacteria, fungi, and fox prey. Then I sequenced 16S rRNA, a common gene that can differentiate among species. I am currently processing the sequences from the scat samples and comparing them to known pathogen sequences in order to identify putative or possible pathogens.

USC undergraduate assistant, Lauren Stoneburner, weighing out island fox scat for DNA extraction. Photo courtesy of Nicole Adams
I will then compare the genetic diversity of a gene family associated with the immune system (major histocompatibility complex II) to the diversity of organisms found in the scat to better understand the current diversity of the immunity genes in the Channel Island fox and how this affects the health of individuals.

The complex population history, combined with ongoing health issues, contribute to the need for conservation of the island foxes. I look forward to sharing my results and conclusions and potentially informing the management practice of these curious critters.

Nicole Adams is a Graduate Student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA.

More Research Regarding Island Foxes: