Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Channel Island Fox and People

Island foxes have a long history with people.  We don't know for sure how island foxes first arrived on the Channel Islands. There are two basic theories:
  1. Gray foxes were stranded on the northern islands during the ice age when water levels were lower and the distance from the mainland to the islands was approximately four miles. The water level was low enough that San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa were one big island. Other animals like mammoths swam over to the island and lived there as well. Over thousands of years both the island fox and the mammoth adapted to smaller territory and less resources on the islands and became dwarf in size.
  2. Native Americans transported mainland gray foxes out to the islands and over a few thousand years the species evolved to be the island fox.

There is very little fossil evidence of foxes on the islands. Scientists are currently evaluating 6,000-year-old-fossil fox bones found on the northern islands to determine if they are island fox bones or bones of the ancestral gray fox. If the DNA shows the remains belonged to an island fox then it is more likely that this island species was on the Channel Islands before humans arrived in North America.

For at least several thousand years, island foxes interacted with the island communities of Chumash people. On Santa Cruz Island, Chumash villages existed in the areas of both Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoner’s Harbor. Over time, these native people transported island foxes to the southern islands of Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas.

The island fox was not a pet, it was a wild animal that lived side-by-side with the native people. Images of island foxes appear in rock art on Santa Catalina Island and archeologists have found ancient ceremonial burials of island foxes in several locations.

Island foxes lived on San Nicolas Island with the Lone Woman whose story was told in the novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. The facts of this classic story of survival are gradually coming to light. Archeologists have recently found the cave on this treeless, windswept island where the woman found shelter. L.A. Times article

treeless San Nicolas Island, one of the California Channel Islands
As more artifacts are uncovered, we may finally know who this woman was and what interactions she had with animals, like the island fox, that shared the island with her.

Today, campers and day visitors are interacting with the island fox. When you stop and watch an island fox, you are a time traveler seeing what native people saw thousands of years ago.