Friday, January 24, 2020

Island Foxes and Island Spotted Skunks

On two of the Channel Islands, island foxes share their ecosystem with island spotted skunks.

The island spotted skunk is smaller than the island fox, and even more elusive. Because the skunk is primarily nocturnal, few people encounter them and, until recently, little was known about them.

When the island fox faced near-extinction on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands in 2000, people took note of the island spotted skunk for the first time. The first counting of island spotted skunks occurred when they were captured during island fox counting.

When the island fox population was low, the population of island spotted skunks soared. This gathering of spotted-skunk and island-fox cake pops, illustrates the overwhelming number of spotted skunks to island foxes. 

By 2014, however, the foxes were overtaking the skunks in reproduction and survival; island fox numbers almost equaled the estimated number of spotted skunks. As island foxes continued to increase across Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands, the island spotted skunk population continued to decline dramatically. (Or at least, the number of island spotted skunks captured during island fox counting has declined.)

The gathering of cake pops–compiled by researchers Juliann Schamel and Angela Guglielmino–demonstrates how drastic the population shift has become.

What we don't know is: Why? Why have island spotted skunk numbers declined so much? What is the normal population relationship between these two species? Are island foxes out-competing island spotted skunks or is something else at play?

In the past few years, researchers have begun looking into the life and behavior of the island spotted skunk. FIF contributed support to researcher Ellie Boas to supply batteries for the first trap cameras that were put out to capture images of island spotted skunks. Researchers continue to try to capture images of island foxes and spotted skunks interacting, but it has been a challenge.

2020 opened with an important meeting of biologists, wildlife veterinarians, researchers, and invested organizations and institutions to pursue inquiry into the island spotted skunk. Following the example of the Island Fox Conservation Working Group and the successful conservation efforts for the island fox, the group will work to solve questions and develop action plans.

Friends of the Island Fox sends a resounding "Yip, Yip" to the newly formed Island Spotted Skunk Conservation Working Group. 

May we all work together to understand the important relationship between these two unique island species.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

How Structures in Teeth Could Provide Accurate Age Information for Island Foxes?

In October 2019, Friends of the Island Fox funded a research study, via a donation from Safari West, to investigate the use of cementum analysis as a method to determine island fox age at death. The current standard method for estimating age in island foxes is based on the wear of the upper first molar. This method is imprecise as tooth wear is heavily influenced by diet and varies significantly between islands and even among habitats on the same island.

Knowing the age at death is very valuable as it allows the National Park and other island managers to track the island fox lifespan. This is important as a fox who dies at age 9 or 10, after reproducing for many years, has contributed to the survival of the species. A fox that dies at 3 or 4 may not have had a chance to replace itself in the population or pass on its genes.

Image 1 - see sources below
Cementum is a thin mineralized tissue covering the root surface of teeth and functions as a tooth supporting device which anchors the tooth in the socket. Unlike bone, cementum is produced throughout one's life and forms annual layers (annuli)–a fact that makes it useful in aging techniques.

Cementum Analysis
To determine the age of an island fox after it has died, the lower canine tooth is removed and sent to the lab for aging.

Photo provided by S. Baker 2019
Once the tooth is received at the lab it is cleaned to remove any dirt and soft tissue, then undergoes processing to decalcify the tooth in preparation for analysis.

This makes the tooth very soft and pliable. The tooth is then preserved by fixing it in formaldehyde, also known as formalin, to preserve proteins and vital structures within the tooth. Next, it is embedded in a paraffin wax block which provides a support medium to make it easier to cut thin slices for examination.

The paraffin embedded tooth is cut into sections, approximately 15 microns thick (about the size of a droplet of mist or fog) on a device called a microtome, which is very similar to a deli slicer. The thin sections are mounted on glass microscope slides as the final step prior to analysis.

Paraffin embedded sample on a microtome being sectioned, courtesy M. Watling 2019
The sections are stained with a special histological dye that is taken up by annuli at varying degrees (light blue or darker blue) depending on the amount of cementum laid down in a given year. This provides both a highlight and contrast for the purposes of counting the number of growth rings (aging) under a microscope.

The picture of cementum annuli in the photo below indicates the growth rings with the black arrows.
Image 4 - see sources below
If it is possible to accurately determine a fox's age at time of death, it can be used to monitor average longevity and to investigate many questions across all six of the Channel Island. Questions such as:
  • What age group of foxes are most likely to be hit by cars?
  • How old were foxes collected during annual mortality monitoring?
  • Do males or females have a greater lifespan?
Friends of the Island Fox is committed to research that will expand understanding of island fox biology and behavior. The more we know about island foxes, the more we can protect their future.
- Mike Watling, FIF Advisory Committee 

Image sources
  • Image 1 - The chemical and microbial degradation of bones and teeth. Advance in human palaeopathology. John Wiley & Sons - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from (accessed 17 Dec., 2019)
  • Image 4 - Tochigi, Kahoko & Aoki, Yukino & Maruyama, Tetsuya & Yamazaki, Koji & Kozakai, Chinatsu & Naganuma, Tomoko & Inagaki, Akino & Masaki, Takashi & Koike, Sinsuke. (2019). Does hard mast production affect patterns of cementum annuli formation in premolar teeth of Asian black bears (Ursus thebetanus)? PLOS ONE. 14.e0211561. 101371/journal.pone.0211561