Channel Island Fox
Scientific Name: Urocyon littoralis
The island fox has two layers of fur: a softer coat of underfur, and a longer coat of “guard” hairs. This fur will molt once a year.
At just 3 to 6 pounds, the island fox is the largest mammalian predator on the Channel Islands. These tiny foxes are true California Natives: they are found on six of the eight Channel Islands off the California Coast, and nowhere else in the world.
STATUS: Between 1994 and 2000, island foxes declined by 85% across four of the islands. They are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
HABITAT: The island foxes are found on six of the Channel Islands: San Clemente, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Catalina, and San Nicholas. The islands are semi-arid and receive less than six inches of rainfall per year. The foxes live in chaparral, coastal scrub, grassland, and woodland habitats.
DIET: Island foxes are omnivorous. They hunt deer mice, reptiles, birds, and insects—one of their favorite foods is the Jerusalem cricket. They also take advantage of the native fruit and plants found on the islands and will eat crabs and sea mammals that wash ashore.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: The island fox is the smallest fox in North America. About the size of a domestic cat, they are 23 to 27 inches long from nose to tail. Each of the six island populations form their own subspecies with specific physical and genetic differences. Male island foxes are a little larger than females, and they form monogamous pairs that usually mate for life.
Nature Out of Balance
The plight of the island fox illustrates the interconnectivity of all the elements of the environment, and how changing one element can put an entire ecosystem in jeopardy. When the bald eagle thrived on the Channel Islands, the eagles and foxes lived in balance, because bald eagles eat fish and other marine life, not foxes. In the 1960s, the bald eagle began dying off on the islands due to DDT pesticides that ended up in the ocean. The pesticides would enter the eagle’s system through the fish that it ate, causing the eagles to lay eggs with very thin shells that would not survive incubation.
When the bald eagles disappeared, another predator moved in to take their place: golden eagles. These eagles were initially attracted to the island by feral pigs, which had been introduced as domestic livestock in the 19th century. Unlike other foxes, the island fox had never had a predator and hunted during the day. In addition, other non-native domestic animals, such as sheep, goats, and cows, had reduced the tall, native grasses through grazing. All this resulted in making the foxes easy prey for the new eagle predators.
Between 1995 and 2000, the island foxes nearly went extinct on several islands. On San Miguel, the population dropped from 450 to 15 individuals. On Catalina, distemper from an unvaccinated domestic dog spread through the fox population and wiped out over 80% of the foxes on the eastern part of the island.
Today, the fox population is recovering due to the combined efforts of multiple organizations. Efforts include relocating golden eagles, reintroducing bald eagles, removing feral pigs and alien plant species, reestablishing native plant species, and captive breeding for reintroduction purposes.