The fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is a small crepuscular fox native to the Sahara Desert and the Sinai Peninsula. Its most distinctive feature is its unusually large ears, which serve to dissipate heat. The fennec is the smallest canid species. Its coat, ears, and kidney functions have adapted to the desert environment with high temperatures and little water. Also, its hearing is sensitive to hear prey moving underground. It mainly eats insects, small mammals, and birds. The fennec has a life span of up to 14 years in captivity and about 10 years in the wild. Its main predators are the Verreaux's eagle-owl, jackals, and other large mammals. Fennec families dig out burrows in the sand for habitation and protection, which can be as large as 120 m2 (1,292 sq ft) and adjoin the burrows of other families. Precise population figures are not known but are estimated from the frequency of sightings; these indicate that the fennec is currently not threatened by extinction. Knowledge of social interactions is limited to information gathered from captive animals. The fennec is usually assigned to the genus Vulpes; however, this is debated due to differences between the fennec and other fox species. The fennec's fur is prized by the indigenous peoples of North Africa, and in some parts of the world, it is considered an exotic pet.
Canis (zerda) was the scientific name proposed by Eberhard August Wilhelm von Zimmermann in 1780. It was placed in the genus Vulpes by Karl Christian Gmelin in 1788. The scientific name Fennecus arabicus was proposed by Anselme Gaëtan Desmarest in 1804.
The fennec fox has 32 chromosome pairs, while other fox species have between 35 and 39. The species also displays behaviors uncharacteristic of foxes, such as living in packs while most other fox species are solitary. Its phylogenetic relationship is presented in the cladogram below.(Fig. 10)
The fur of the fennec fox is straw- coloured. Its nose is black. Its tapering tail has a black tip. Its long ears have longitudinal reddish stripes on the back and are so densely haired inside that the external auditory meatus is not visible. The edges of the ears are whitish, but darker on the back. The ear to body ratio is greatest in the canid family and likely help in dissipating heat and locating vertebrates. It has dark streaks running from the inner eye to either side of the slender muzzle. Its large eyes are dark. The dental formula is 184.108.40.206 × 2 = 42 with small and narrow canines. The pads of its paws are covered with dense fur, which facilitates walking on hot, sandy soil.
The fennec fox is the smallest canid. Females range in head-to-body size from 34.5 to 39.5 cm (13.6 to 15.6 in) with a 23–25 cm (9.1–9.8 in) long tail and 9–9.5 cm (3.5–3.7 in) long ears, and weigh 1–1.9 kg (2.2–4.2 lb). Males are slightly larger, ranging in head-to-body size from 39 to 39.5 cm (15.4 to 15.6 in) with a 23–25 cm (9.1–9.8 in) long tail and 10 cm (3.9 in) long ears, weighing at least 1.3 kg (2.9 lb).
Distribution and habitat
The fennec fox is distributed throughout the Sahara, from Morocco and Mauritania to northern Niger, through Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. It inhabits small sand dunes and vast treeless sand areas with sparse vegetation such as grasses, sedges and small shrubs.
Behaviour and ecology
A fennec fox digs its den in sand, either in open areas or places sheltered by plants with stable sand dunes. In compacted soils, dens are up to 120 m2 (1,300 sq ft) large, with up to 15 different entrances. In some cases, different families interconnect their dens, or locate them close together. In soft, looser sand, dens tend to be simpler with only one entrance leading to a single chamber.
Hunting and diet
The fennec fox is an omnivore, feeding on small rodents, lizards, geckos, skinks, small birds and their eggs, fruits and also some tubers. It relies on the moisture content of prey, but drinks water when available. It hunts alone and digs in the sand for small vertebrates and insects. Some individuals were observed to bury prey for later consumption and searching for food in the vicinity of human settlements.
In the Algerian Sahara, 114 scat samples were collected that contained more than 400 insects, plant fragments and date palm Phoenix dactylifera fruits, remains of birds, mammals, squamata and insects.
Captive fennec foxes reach sexual maturity at around nine months and mate between January and April. They usually breed only once per year. The copulation tie lasts up to two hours and 45 minutes. Gestation lasts between 50 and 52 days, sometimes also up to 63 days. After mating, the male becomes very aggressive and protects the female, provides her with food during pregnancy and lactation. Females give birth between March and June to a litter of one to four pups that open their eyes after 8 to 11 days. Both female and male care for the pups. They communicate by barking, purring, yapping and squeaking. Pups remain in the family even after a new litter is born. The pups are weaned at the age of 61 to 70 days.
The oldest captive male fennec fox was 14 years old, and the oldest female 13 years.
African horned owl species likely prey on fennec fox pups. Anecdotal reports exist about caracals, jackals, striped hyenas also preying on the fennec fox. But according to nomads, the fennec fox is fast and changes directions so that even their Salukis are hardly able to capture it.
In North Africa, the fennec fox is commonly trapped for exhibition or sale to tourists. Building and expansion of settlements in southern Morocco likely caused its disappearance in this area.
The fennec fox is bred commercially as an exotic pet. Commercial breeders remove the pups from their mother to hand-raise them, as tame foxes are more valuable. A breeders' registry has been set up in the United States to avoid any problems associated with inbreeding. The fennec fox is classified a "small wild/exotic canid" by the United States Department of Agriculture.
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