Monday, June 19, 2017

Island Fox Behavior in 2017

courtesy of K. Schafer
In 2017, visitors to the Channel Islands have the opportunity to see something that was rare just a few years ago: wild island foxes interacting with each other.

When island foxes faced extinction in 2000, surviving individuals were brought into captive breeding facilities. From 2000-2006, seeing an island fox was a momentous occasion. Since 2008, all island foxes have been returned to the wild (with the exception of a few in mainland zoos). As the populations recovered across the islands, the opportunity to see island foxes hunting and interacting with each other has increased. (seeing island fox behavior on Santa Cruz Island 2015).

Witnessing interactive behavior between island foxes is a gift provided by the successful recovery of this once endangered species. Here are some of the behaviors we saw in late May:

Vocalization: Yes, island foxes vocalize. They bark, growl, and pups make soft whimpering and eecking sounds. 

  • Barks are typically high pitched and evenly spaced. Barks may be repeated multiple times. In the distance, we heard an island fox bark eleven times in a row. This vocalization is used to warn an interloper that they have trespassed on an individual's territory. Island foxes may bark at each other or, occasionally, at humans. If an island fox barks at you, you are too close. Hear an island fox barking.
  • The Growl of an island fox is low and soft. Typically this sound is used to warn off another island fox that has approached too close. We saw an island fox curled up sleeping by the side of a dry creek bed. A second island fox approached it, coming within five feet. The fox laying down, growled at the approacher. The second fox stopped, turned around, and went the other direction.
  • Pup Sounds are typically only heard by parent foxes. The following pup vocalizations were recorded at the Santa Barbara Zoo from a pup that was abandoned by its parents. Hear island fox pup vocalization

Aggressive Territorial Behavior: Island foxes are very territorial. (Territory size) Living on an island with limited resources means quality territory is vital to survival. A pair of island foxes mates for life to protect their territory and the resources needed to feed themselves and their offspring. Challenges over territory can occasionally lead to aggressive behavior.

  • Vocalizations (see above) are used to warn other foxes and avoid physical confrontation.
  • Chasing can occur when an island fox intrudes into the territory of another island fox or pair. We saw one adult island fox chasing another adult island fox out of the campground area.
  • Physical Altercations can occur between island foxes, especially over territory. Island foxes with floppy ears are typically older individuals who have had altercations with other island foxes. The cartilage of the external ear can be damaged by bites or twisting from other foxes. Over time, repeated damage leads to ears that flop down or may even be torn off. Bites to legs are also frequent injuries. Limping island foxes are often individuals that have been bested in a squabble.
island fox with damage to ear caused by another island fox
parent island fox with two pups

Affiliative Behavior: Island foxes are family oriented and pair bonded. They demonstrate caring and friendly behavior to family members. Female offspring remain in the same area as their parents and on occasion friendly behavior may occur between adult offspring and their parents or siblings.

  • Care for Pups includes teaching pups to hunt and find food. It is not unusual during the summer to see an adult island fox leading a younger island fox around, showing them where to find specific food resources. Parents lick pups to groom them and also accept playful pounces from youngsters. Parents may discipline a misbehaving pup with a warning snarl, lifting the lips to show the teeth. The pup will show submission by lowering the head and body, flattening the ears, and licking the chin of the parent. Island Fox Pups
  • Familial Recognition or recognizing family members is a behavior that is being seen more as fox families build generations. This May we saw a young adult island fox (1-2 years old) approach an elder island fox sleeping curled up along the dry creek bed. The younger fox came right up to the older fox and sniffed it. The older fox did not growl or demonstrate any aggressive behaviors and the younger fox did not try to chase the old fox or intimidate it in any way. This interaction was completely different from the aggressive behavior seen between two other adults on the same day (see The Growl above). Do island foxes continue to recognize family members throughout their life and maintain friendly behavior toward them? (See - Two adult island foxes meet) This is definitely an area that needs further research. 
island fox pup shows submissive behavior to parent
It is exciting that there are questions to be researched regarding island fox behavior. If we had lost the island foxes on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Catalina Islands seventeen years ago, we would have also lost the opportunity to know this species better, to understand how it behaves, and how island isolation has changed its behavior from the mainland gray fox.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Channel Island Fox Update 2016

photo courtesy of Anita Machlis
The annual meeting of the Island Fox Conservation Working Group in 2016 reported that the general status of five subspecies of California's Channel Island foxes is GOOD and STABLE. Concern for the San Nicolas Island fox continues.

2016 was a busy year for island foxes. Three subspecies were removed from the Endangered Species list and one was downlisted to Threatened status. The following update includes the population numbers from fall of 2015. (Land managers are currently compiling the fall 2016 data to present their official 2016 population numbers at the Annual Meeting in May 2017.)

San Nicolas Island

Drought impacts were a major concern in 2015-2016, however island foxes on San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands were more severely impacted. These two islands have the least amount of native plant diversity, leaving the highly omnivorous island foxes more dependent on introduced ice plant and the introduced snails and earwigs that live within it. (Island fox diet study) Continued years of drought dramatically reduced introduced species, greatly impacting the island foxes on these two islands. The situation on San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands, however, continue to be different from each other. This is the challenge of protecting island foxes.

photo courtesy of Paul Bronstein
Island Fox Update 2016 a specific island-by-island summary pdf

  • San Miguel Island ~ 382 foxes (low of 15 in the year 2000). Population numbers were revised in late 2016 going back to 2008. The population has recovered from extinction threat and slightly increased in number from 2014. Concern: Drought impact on food resources and increase in life-threatening parasites. (see Island Fox Update 2016 above)
  • Santa Rosa Island ~ 1,256 foxes (low of 15 in the year 2000). The population has recovered from extinction threat and, despite the drought, continues to thrive and increase. Concern: An unusual and fatal parasite, Leptospira, may have been introduced via sea lions. Further investigation is needed to determine the extent of threat to island foxes. 
    (see Island Fox Update 2016 above)
  • Santa Cruz Island ~ 2,170 foxes (low of ~ 80 in the year 2002). The population has recovered from extinction threat and is very robust. The increased number of older animals in the population combined with carrying capacity and drought may have caused a drop from the 2014 population high of ~ 2,700. Plant diversity on this island provides island foxes with diverse resources and drought has not been a threat. Concern: Golden eagle predation occurred again in 2016, but was limited. Biosecurity–introduced disease–remains a threat.
    native plant restoration efforts in 2016 on Santa Cruz Island
  • Santa Catalina Island ~ 1,812 foxes (low of ~ 103 in the year 2000).
    The population has recovered from extinction threat, but continued threats connected with large numbers of people visiting the island prompted the USFWS to maintain a Threatened status for this island fox subspecies. Concern: Biosecurity–introduced disease–poses a constant threat to Santa Catalina Island. Serology testing is an especially important conservation effort looking for early evidence of disease introduction. Even human trash poses threats to these island foxes
    photo courtesy of Melissa Baffa
     
  • San Clemente Island ~ 888 foxes (Not Endangered; adults only). Island foxes remain robust on this island, though the drought may have depressed survival in 2015. Concern: Island fox survival may have decreased in areas with less native plant diversity and therefore fewer food resources. The Navy has begun native plant restoration projects, but the effort is still in the early stages. The rainy season of 2016 may have positively impacted this effort. Island fox pups, abandoned by parents on this island, are the few individuals currently found in California zoos.
  • San Nicolas Island ~ 260 foxes (Not Endangered; adults only). In 2012, San Nicolas Island had the greatest density of foxes anywhere in the world and a population estimated at over 600 individuals. Since that year the population has declined and stabilized at ~ 250 individuals. Concern: The native plant diversity of this island was severely impacted in the last century. San Nicolas has the least biodiversity of native plant species. Island foxes became dependent on introduced plant species that died off during the years of consecutive drought. Island foxes have shown signs of emaciation and severe parasite infestation, either or both of these impacts may be a cause for decline. More on drought impacts as reported in 2016. The Navy has begun native plant restoration projects and the rainy season of 2016 may have positively impacted this effort. 
  •  
In addition to drought and disease impacts, there are concerns regarding the lack of genetic diversity in the San Nicolas Island fox population. To-date there is no evidence that the San Nicolas population suffers from genetic anomalies that could negatively impact their reproduction or survival. However a lack of genetic diversity can also impact how a species or subspecies is able to respond to disease challenges. Genetics and Disease Immunity Research

Everyone is watching the San Nicolas Island fox population and trying to establish why they have declined and whether or not their numbers improved in 2016. 

Keep informed of the status of the San Nicolas Island fox by subscribing to the FIF bimonthly newsletter SUBSCRIBE

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Where Can You See An Island Fox on The Mainland?

In 2017, there are less than a handful of island foxes in captivity. Since 2008 and the end of captive breeding to help recover island fox populations, the goal has been to keep island foxes in the wild.

In 2017, the only island foxes in captivity are individuals that can not be returned to the wild. Most were found as pups abandoned by their parents on San Clemente Island. Drought over the past few years has challenged island fox survival and Navy personnel on San Clemente Island have found six pups that could not be reunited with a parent and were too young to survive on their own.

Beau, formerly at the Santa Barbara Zoo, is currently at The Living Desert in Palm Springs. 

Male island foxes can be aggressively territorial which makes it difficult to have multiple males at the same location. The island-fox home at the Santa Barbara Zoo is now filled with two rambunctious brothers, Lewis and Clark. This playful duo are younger and have grown-up together. Check out their video
gray fox on the left and two island foxes to the right
Two female island foxes can be seen at the CA Living Museum in Bakersfield. They are living with a female gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). The gray fox is the ancestor species to the island fox and this match-up allows you to see how much smaller the island fox is in comparison to its ancestor. Many visitors mistake the island foxes for babies of their cousin.

island foxes have relatively short tails

gray foxes have much longer tails
Island foxes (above) have relatively short tails for their size. The gray fox (right) has a much longer tail than the island fox. What advantage is there to having a shorter tail on the islands? Is the genetic trait for a shorter tail linked to some other beneficial trait? The answer is still out there waiting to be discovered.

If you can't travel to the Channel Islands, you can still see an island fox in a few special places.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Island Fox Awareness Day This Weekend !


How small is an island fox?
Who has bigger ears, an island fox or a fennec?
How do you fit a radio tracking collar on a wild island fox?

Discover these answers and more at the annual

Santa Barbara Zoo 
Island Fox Awareness Day
Sunday, February 19
11 AM - 3 PM

See the Zoo's two young brother island foxes. They were rescued from San Clemente Island as abandoned pups.

 

Friends of the Island Fox (2/18/17 Update - we will not be at the Zoo due to the weather) will have booths and activities:
  • Balance the Island Fox's Island Ecosystem
  • Learn How A Wild Island Fox Receives a Health Check

There will be other crafts and activities and the Animal Care Staff has scheduled the following:
  • 11 AM Island Fox Talk with Vet Technician
  • 11:30 AM Island Fox Talk with Animal Care Staff and enrichment
  • 12 PM Island Fox Talk with Animal Care Staff and enrichment
  • 1 PM Fennec Talk with Animal Care Staff and enrichment
  • 1:30 PM Fennec Talk with Animal Care Staff and enrichment
African fennecs

Come enjoy a day of foxes.

All activities included with Zoo admission. Rain may cancel. (Friends of the Island Fox will not be at the Zoo because of the weather 2/18/17 Update)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Support Conservation Efforts That Work


In 2015, Friends of the Island Fox began working with the Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC) on a project to replace deteriorating trash containers that threatened island fox survival. (See the direct and in-direct danger to island foxes)

As of January 2017, FIF has funded the installation of 7 “Fox-Saver” bins. Julie King, Director of Conservation and Wildlife Management with the CIC sent us this exciting report from the field:

The wildlife-proof cans that we installed out at Parson's Landing (remote beach campground) have made a HUGE difference! 



Before I would spend 30 minutes each day I was out there [counting island foxes] picking up trash that foxes and ravens had drug into the bushes. I would always catch foxes there ... loaded with lice. [They had become] habituated moochers. This year, it was so different. No trash to be found on the ground or in the bushes and no foxes caught. To me, no foxes in camp is a testament to the effectiveness of the new trash cans. No more free meals. Outside of camp, there were plenty of foxes and they were all in great shape. Nice to see!


Six new bins have replaced the two large dilapidated wooden containers. The result is healthier island foxes, no foxes coming to the area for free food and becoming more likely to be hit by automobiles, and no foxes trapped inside deathtrap trash cans.

We know what works. Removing an unnatural food source also reduces unnatural concentrations of island foxes thereby decreasing the possible spread of disease. Prevention of problems is financially cost effective and reduces the need to react to crisis situations.

Friends of the Island Fox supports conservation measures that are proven to work:



We are working with our friends at CIC on other measures to make campgrounds less attractive to island foxes and more usable for humans.

Now more than ever, island foxes need you to secure their survival into the future.