Island Gray Fox

Island Gray Fox
Island Gray Fox

Description and biology

While the island gray fox is mostly gray, its belly and throat are white, and the sides of its neck and the underside of its tail are rust. Black markings often accent its face and limbs.

An average island gray fox has a head and body length of 20 inches (50 centimeters) and stands roughly 5 inches (13 centimeters) tall at its shoulder. Its tail can extend in length from 4.5 to 11.5 inches (11.4 to 29.2 centimeters). It weighs between 3 and 6 pounds (1.3 and 2.7 kilograms).

The island gray fox hunts for food primarily in the early morning and late evening. Insects and fruits constitute the main portion of its diet, with small mammals, birds, reptiles, and eggs making up the remainder.

Male and female foxes come together to mate between December and March. A female island gray fox usually gives birth to a litter of one to eight pups after a gestation (pregnancy) period of 50 to 60 days. The mother nurses her pups for six weeks while the father hunts for food in a range of about 3 square miles (7.7 square kilometers).

Habitat and current distribution

The island gray fox lives in a variety of habitats, including grassland, coastal scrub, sand dune, and forest areas. It is found only on the six largest Santa Barbara Islands (also known as the Channel Islands) that extend along the southern coast of California.

Scientists believe that the Channel Islands split off from mainland California some 11,500 years ago and that the islands then broke apart from each other over the next 2,000 years. The island foxes evolved separately from mainland foxes and from each other, forming unique subspecies on each island.

History and conservation measures

A study of island gray foxes was begun in 1993 by biologists (scientists who study living organisms) on San Miguel Island. This has revealed that the population of island gray foxes on the island has declined from 450 animals in 1994 to fewer than 40 animals.

It is believed that similar declines have occurred on the other islands. Destruction of its limited habitat is the main threat to the animal’s continued existence. Other threats include competition for food from feral (once domesticated, now wild) cats and possible diseases from domestic dogs.

The remoteness of the Santa Barbara Islands makes protection of the island gray fox difficult. The U.S. Navy is attempting to eliminate feral cats on the islands of San Clemente and San Nicolas. Also, the Los Angeles Zoo is considering establishing a program to breed island gray foxes in captivity.