Thursday, May 16, 2024

What is Island Fox Density?


Density is a term used in biology to express the number of individual living things in a given area. Biologists use a defined area size–ie. a square meter, square kilometer or square hectare–to quantify density. 

A square kilometer is equivalent to the footprint of Disneyland in southern California and a square hectare is equivalent to a professional baseball field.

Understanding how many island foxes are living in a square kilometer is part of the calculation for estimating the size of an island-wide population.

At the recent Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting, land managers reported on the island fox density for their islands. There was a noticeable difference between northern and southern islands.

Northern islands are reporting considerably higher island fox density. The causes for this are not completely clear. Northern islands may benefit from less extreme weather–higher average rainfall and more moderate summer temperatures–which support diverse prey and plant food for island foxes. Northern islands also have fewer impacts from humans; Catalina Island and the two Navy islands, San Clemente and San Miguel, have roads and cars that cause the highest percentage of fatalities for island foxes. 

High density, however, can have a downside. Catalina Island has been stable for the past 10 years with a density around 9 foxes per sq km. The island with the highest density in 2023–14 foxes per sq km–was also the smallest, San Miguel Island. When density increases, individual island fox territory decreases. A smaller territory means a smaller area to find food. High density can push some individuals into habitats with fewer quality resources. San Miguel's resources are less diverse than the larger islands and there are fewer options for foxes when drought or other weather extremes occur.


When island foxes are living closer to each other, the possibility of disease moving rapidly through a population also becomes heightened. Parasites can spread more easily.

Understanding population density is important for calculating risks to populations and making informed conservation decisions.