Friday, January 19, 2024

An Island Fox Gets a Health Check - Part 2

Welcome guest blogger Jessica Sanchez, wildlife veterinarian and FIF Board Member. In Part 1, she explained how island foxes are captured annually. Now, she'll take us through an island fox health check.

As biologists and veterinarians, we carefully remove the fox from the box trap, being sure not to get their tail caught in the door!

Island foxes are blindfolded to help keep them calm and reduce stress. Foxes do not have any natural predators on the Channel Islands so they are very brave, but they can still be stressed from handling by humans. Exams are quick and we do our best to be quiet and efficient. Island foxes are not sedated, so they can be released immediately and return to life as normal ASAP.

The health exam begins with an examination of teeth.

We open their mouths very gently so we can see the upper premolars. The wear on these teeth allows us to classify each animal into an "age class." Age classes range from 0 (pups born that year) to 4 (very old foxes with worn teeth). The pups also have serration on their incisors that have not yet worn smooth. Although age classes are not an exact age–and can vary by island, diet, and habitat (rougher food and sand wear teeth faster)–they give us a semi-standardized guide for assessing how old the population is overall. (more on using teeth to age island foxes)

We can also identify the pups of the year (less than a year old) by their appearance. They start out darkly colored and slowly transition to their adult gray/rufous/white. By the time we catch them during the summer/fall season, they look like mini-adults but with a rounder, fluffier shape.

Reproduction can be assessed in the females by examining their abdomens. A female who has not had pups that year will have white fur on her belly, with no mammary/nipple development (left, below). A female nursing pups will have the hair licked away from her nipples, the surrounding hair will be stained red from the saliva of the puppies, and her mammary tissue will be large and well developed from producing milk (right, below).

We do a thorough exam, assessing body condition and checking for any injuries. We check each foot to make sure they have no injuries to their claws, which are semi-retractable. Island foxes and grey foxes are unique among canids in that they can rotate their wrists, allowing them to grip and climb trees. (more on the island fox's ancestor, the grey fox)

Foxes often have grass awns or other debris stuck in their eyes, so we clean these out and remove any gunk that has accumulated. - Jessica Sanchez

In Health Check Part 3 - Jessica will detail the specific health measures taken for island foxes.

Part 4 - Other species encountered during health checks