Channel Island Fox Recovery Efforts. (Conservation Spotlight)

By Parker, Julia A. | Endangered Species Update, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Channel Island Fox Recovery Efforts. (Conservation Spotlight)

Parker, Julia A., Endangered Species Update


The Channel Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis) is endemic to six of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Archaeological evidence suggests that the island fox inhabited three of the northern Islands approximately 16,000 years ago when they were a connected land mass known as Santarosae. In 1994, fox populations were estimated at 6,000 on six of the eight Channel Islands. San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz Islands in the north and San Nicholas, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina Islands in the south. The number of foxes on San Miguel Island fell from 450 in 1994 to 15 by 1999. This instigated the formation of an ad hoc recovery team, a group of scientists and naturalists brought together by the Channel Islands National Park. At the same time, the foxes on San Clemente Island were identified as a predator on the loggerhead shrike, a federally protected avian species that nests on that island. Wildlife biologists and natural resource specialists from the Department of the Navy on San Clemente Island sought to alleviate predation pressures on the bird by relocating 12 of the foxes. In March 1999, the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens received two pairs of foxes for exhibit. The fox is an ideal education and conservation species with its only native habitat in our back yard, the Channel Islands. The ability to increase and share our knowledge about the fox was the start of a conservation effort in partnership with the National Park Service and other dedicated specialists to save the fox from extinction.


In the spring of 1999, 12 Channel Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis clementae) were relocated to mainland institutions. The Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens was one of four institutions to acquire the San Clemente Island fox. The opportunity to exhibit the fox was shared by Utah's Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California, and the California Living Museum in Bakersfield, California. Relocating foxes from San Clemente Island was preferable to culling foxes in order to protect the loggerhead shrike for the United States Navy, which owns San Clemente, San Nicholas, and San Miguel Islands.

Zoological facilities exhibiting the fox are able to study its natural history, thus providing an opportunity for mainland institutions to contribute to the Channel Island National Park's conservation and education efforts. Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens' involvement with the Channel Islands National Park and the island fox recovery project has continued since 1999. Since then, the zoo staff has attended annual meetings of the island fox conservation working group, an affiliation of agency, conservancy, zoo, non-profit, and academic representatives concerned with conservation of the island fox.

Natural history

The natural history of the island fox has been studied and monitored by many scientists and naturalists since the 1800s. The island fox is the largest endemic mammal on the Channel Islands. It weighs an average of four pounds (1.8 to 2.27 kg), measures 12 to 13 inches (30.84 to 33.08 cm) in height, and measures 23 to 27 inches (58.42 to 68.58 cm) in length including the tail (CINPS 2000). These expert climbers are one of the smallest foxes in the world. The island fox has two fewer tail vertebrae than the gray fox. This docile, catlike animal has striking cinnamon-rufous, black, and white markings on the face accented with a black chin and white throat. The dorsal coloration is grizzled white and black. The base of the ears and sides of the neck and limbs are also cinnamon-rufous in color. The tail has a thin black dorsal stripe, grizzled white and black on the sides, and cinnamon-rufous underneath. Pair bonding begins in January, and mating takes place between February and March, with births in April or May after a gestation of 50 to 53 days. The average litter is two pups. Males play an active and important role in the rearing of pups, delivering food, and participating in play behavior.

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