Nov 072009
photo provided courtesy of abeams on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeNorthern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula
Nichesmall carnivore
Favorite Foodlizards
Lengthup to 28 inches, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 3 pounds
Threatstrapping for fur and for pet trade

The Sahara desert is a land of murderous extremes. Daytime temperatures can spike to 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and below freezing in the dead of night. A cracked landscape of barren rocks, rolling dunes of sand, and very sparse vegetation, the Sahara is not a place where life can have an easy go of it. Most mammals cannot survive in deserts because of the harsh conditions and unavailability of water, but one little mammal has bucked the trend for millenia across the sandy wastes.

The fennec fox is the world’s smallest fox. A full grown adult only weighs in at three pounds, much lighter than a house cat. It inhabits the sandy regions of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and is well-adapted to life in the desert. It has fur on the soles of its feet that serves as a buffer between the fox’s body and the burning hot sand of the Sahara, and its giant ears are packed with blood vessels that help to radiate heat away from the body to keep cool. Its size is also an advantage, allowing it to fit into tight spaces and survive on less food and water than larger mammals need.

The fennec fox is also nocturnal, retreating from the sun’s menacing rays during the day into underground burrows until daylight wanes and the temperature dips to a level more suitable for hunting. As the moon rises over the desert, the fennec fox will leave the safety of its den to hunt the sands and rocky crevices for small animals like lizards and insects. It obtains nearly all of its water from the prey that it consumes, so this little fox can live in extremely arid environments where larger animals would most certainly perish.

Most foxes are solitary, but the fennec foxes will often gather in groups of up to 10 individuals. Each member of the group digs a den several yards long into the ground to rear its young and escape larger predators. Females give birth to litters of between 2 and 5 pups and will remain with them in the den for about three months. Fennec foxes reach maturity quickly, becoming fully grown in less than a year, which is yet another adaptation for surviving in a harsh land.

Despite its hardiness, the fennec fox is becoming increasingly rare, especially across the Arabian peninsula, where hunting for its pelts and trapping the young for pets have cut its numbers. There is still much to learn about this tiny dog of the desert. Hopefully it will be around long enough to answer some of the many riddles about its existence.

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