Once nearly extinct, wild foxes on Catalina Island making a comeback

March 2, 2010 By Louis Sahagun

The population of endangered wild foxes on Santa Catalina Island soon could recover to levels not seen in a decade since canine distemper decimated them, biologists said this week.

Standing beside a "Slow Down for Foxes" sign posted along a main road, Carlos de la Rosa, the Catalina Island Conservancy's chief conservation and education officer, said Monday, "Soon we'll have more than 1,300 foxes. But reaching that number is not, in and of itself, as great an achievement as bringing them back from the brink of extinction to a that is stable and able to sustain itself."

The population had crashed to about 100 in 1999, when the conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies launched a $2 million recovery program that includes vaccinations, aerial monitoring and education programs.

A captive breeding program here ended in 2004, the same year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the cat-sized subspecies as endangered. About 950 Catalina Island foxes call the island home, up from 784 at this time last year, according to a recent islandwide trapping effort by conservancy wildlife biologists Julie King and Calvin Duncan.

The foxes are trapped once a year and inspected for illnesses, including an unusual, potentially fatal ear cancer that recently began showing up in older foxes.

The animal's remarkable recovery was spurred, in part, by several years of fluctuations in the weather. An extreme drought in 2007 resulted in the deaths of significant numbers of mule deer, whose carcasses were scavenged by the omnivorous 5-pound foxes. By the time breeding season arrived in 2008, many foxes were literally obese, and females were in such good condition that they were having larger-than-normal litters.

Good rains the past two years triggered an abundance of fruit-bearing cactuses and a population explosion of mice, convenient prey for female foxes to feed to their pups.

Also playing a big role in the recovery has been the island mascot, Tachi, a captive bred fox that became a popular ambassador for the cause in school functions and fundraisers. "Tachi helped us raise $14,000 in donations last year," King said.

The fox, found only on the 75-square-mile island 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, continues to face challenges that are expected to delay efforts to have it taken off the federal endangered species list.

On an island shared by 3,000 humans, the leading cause of death for foxes is "roadkill." With no natural predators, foxes are fearless and frequently wander out to sniff at passing automobiles. The foxes also are threatened by pet dogs. A week ago, a fox was attacked and killed by an untethered dog, a scenario island biologists say occurs nearly every year.

"We lose a total 15 to 20 foxes a year," King said. "About eight to 10 of those are roadkill."

Explore further: Study: Foxes can't outfox coyotes


Related Stories

Study: Foxes can't outfox coyotes

May 25, 2006

Illinois wildlife biologists say coyotes, known to be killers of domestic pets, might also be causing a decline in the Chicago area's fox population.

Tasmania plans to eradicate red foxes

November 20, 2006

Tasmania plans to spend millions of dollars destroying red foxes, an animal that until recently was thought not to have spread there.

Will lemmings fall off climate change cliff?

April 20, 2007

Contrary to popular belief, lemmings do not commit mass suicide by leaping off of cliffs into the sea. In fact, they are quite fond of staying alive. A bigger threat to the rodents is climate change, which could deprive them ...

Foxes get frisky in the far north

July 17, 2007

Bees do it, chimps do it… Now it seems Arctic foxes do it, too. New research looking at the DNA fingerprints of canids in the Far North has revealed that foxes once thought to be monogamous are in fact quite frisky.

Recommended for you

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(Phys.org)—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

Insect DNA extracted, sequenced from black widow spider web

November 25, 2015

Scientists extracted DNA from spider webs to identify the web's spider architect and the prey that crossed it, according to this proof-of-concept study published November 25, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Charles ...

How cells in the developing ear 'practice' hearing

November 25, 2015

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.