SciSun: Out, Foxing   Leave a comment

High in the western Sierra Nevada, along the mountainous borders of California and Oregon, lives a very shy and cautious animal that for decades many people had thought was extinct. The Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator), a species considered lost forever from the region – along with other wildlife that used to live in the area, like Grizzly (Brown) Bears and the Cascade Mountain Wolf – has recently been re-discovered, and based upon photographs, saliva and poop samples (see how important these are!), scientists have confirmed this member of the Canidae family – related to wolves and coyotes and even your family dog – is alive and well, although restricted to just fragments of its original home throughout the Sierra and Cascade mountains.

But this little fox – only about the size of a small terrier-type dog – has managed to survive in its natural environment all this time – despite the pressures of increased human activity, environmental change, and even poisons and traps set for other animals that could easily hurt the fox. Living a the timberline and sub-alpine regions of the mountains – no lower than about 4500 feet, and extending to above where trees will grow – these little fox eat whatever they can find (preferring small rodents, birds, insects and berries), and are active all year. California has protected the Sierra Fox by listing them as threatened, but so far Oregon has taken no formal steps to identify the fox in any way other than just another type of wildlife.

Using motion-activated cameras that snap photos or video whenever an animal passes, two different populations of the Sierra Fox have been found; but it’s estimated there are only about 50 individuals, total, within both communities of these rare animals. Researchers were excited when they checked the tapes and found dozens of recordings, but most of these weren’t Red fox but coyotes; the different-species Grey fox; and a few Northern California squirrels hoping to make it in film without having to move to Hollywood.

Sierra Red Fox  USFS

“Paparazzi. No one told me there’d be Paparazzi.”

Some scientists believe there are so few of the little Sierra foxes there might not be enough individuals to maintain a self-sustaining population. That means a sufficient number of individuals with slight differences between each fox (or any type of plant or animal), that all the different types of skills and strengths and intelligence that helps make a species might not be passed from one generation to the next, and some of what makes the Sierra Nevada red fox unique, could be lost. Of the fox that have been seen, identified or ‘thought’ to exist – based on genetic relationships of known individuals, and how they would fit with animals ‘expected’ to be found – the entire population is officially considered a remnant of a much larger population that lived in the area in the past, and today these two small groups may be the most endangered mammal in North America. So scientists, researchers and friends-of-the-fox are hoping and searching for more fox that maybe haven’t been seen, and working hard to protect the fox they do know are living among the mountains.

Despite a difficult life in some of the highest mountains in the West, the Sierra Nevada Red Fox has withstood challenges of a harsh, rocky, dry and often freezing environment for thousands of years, even when scientists had thought the animal was extinct. Now, with only a few individuals remaining and even greater hurdles ahead, we hope this little fox can continue to survive, out-foxing us all.


Michonne Says: Every animal has a purpose. But I can take or leave foxes. Mostly leave. And they don’t smell that nice, either.

Posted January 27, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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