Fennec Fox Facts

Scientific Name: Vulpes zerda

Group of fennec foxes
Fennec foxes are highly social.

Floridapfe / Getty Images

The fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is known for its huge ears and diminutive size. It is the smallest member of the canid (dog) family. Whether the fennec truly belongs in the genus Vulpes is debated because it has fewer chromosome pairs than other fox species, lives in packs while other foxes are solitary, and has different scent glands. Sometimes fennec foxes are known by the scientific name Fennecus zerda. Its common name comes from the Berber-Arabic word fanak, which means "fox."

Fast Facts: Fennec Fox

  • Scientific Name: Vulpes zerda
  • Common Names: Fennec fox, fennec
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 9.5-16 inch body plus a 7-12 inch tail
  • Weight: 1.5-3.5 pounds
  • Lifespan: 10-14 years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: North Africa and the Sahara Desert
  • Population: Stable
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

The fennec fox's most distinctive feature is its large ears, which may measure 6 inches. The ears help the fox identify prey at night and dissipate heat during the day. The fox is small, with a body ranging from 9 to 16 inches in length, plus a bushy 7 to 12 inch tail. Adults weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds.

The fennec's thick coat is cream-colored with a black-tipped tail. The fluffy coat insulates the fox against temperatures that range from below freezing at night to over 100 F during the day. Fur covers their paws, protecting them from getting burned by hot sand and improving traction on shifting dunes. Fennec foxes lack musk glands found in other fox species, but have glands on their tail tips that produce a musky odor when the fox is startled.

Habitat and Distribution

Fennec foxes live in North Africa and Asia. They range from Morocco to Egypt, south to northern Niger, and east to Israel and Kuwait. The foxes are most at home in sand dunes, but they will live where soil is compacted, too.

Diet

Foxes are omnivores. Fennec foxes are nocturnal hunters that use their sensitive ears to detect the movement of small underground prey. They eat rodents, insects, birds and their eggs, and also fruit and other plants. Fennecs will drink free water, but don't require it. They get their water from food, plus digging in the ground causes dew formation that the animals can lick.

Behavior

Fennec foxes communicate using a wide variety of sounds, including a purr resembling that of a cat. Males mark territory with urine.

Other fox species are mostly solitary, but fennec foxes are highly social. The basic social unit is a mated pair and their offspring for the present and previous year. The group lives in elaborate dens dug into sand or compacted soil.

Fennec fox kits
Fennec fox kits are born with closed eyes and folded ears. Floridapfe / Getty Images

Reproduction and Offspring

Fennec foxes mate once a year in January and February and give birth in March and April. Gestation typically lasts between 50 and 52 days. The female or vixen gives birth in the den to a litter of one to four kits. A birth, the kit's eyes are closed and its ears are folded over. Kits are weaned by 61 to 70 days of age. The male feeds the female while she is caring for the young. Fennec foxes reach sexual maturity around nine months of age and mate for life. They have an average life expectancy of 14 years in captivity and are believed to live about 10 years in the wild.

Conservation Status

The IUCN classifies fennec fox conservation status as "least concern." The foxes are still abundant within most of their range, so the population may be stable. The species is listed under CITES Appendix II to help protect the foxes from international trade abuse.

Threats

The fox's most significant natural predator is the eagle owl. Fennecs are hunted for fur and trapped for the pet trade. But, the most significant threat comes from human settlement and commercialization of the Sahara. Many foxes are killed by vehicles, plus they may suffer habitat loss and degradation.

Woman holding fennec fox
Some people keep fennec foxes as pets. petrenkod / Getty Images

Fennec Foxes and Humans

The fennec fox is the national animal of Algeria. In some places, it's legal to keep fennec foxes as pets. While not truly domesticated, they can be tamed. Like other foxes, they can dig under or climb over most enclosures. Most canine vaccinations are safe for fennecs. Although nocturnal by nature, fennec foxes (like cats) adapt to human schedules.

Sources

  • Alderton, David. Foxes, Wolves, and Wild Dogs of the World. London: Blandford, 1998. ISBN 081605715X.
  • Nobleman, Marc Tyler. Foxes. Benchmark Books (NY). pp. 35–36, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7614-2237-2.
  • Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio; Hoffman, Michael; Mech, Dave. Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. World Conservation Union. pp. 208–209, 2004. ISBN 978-2-8317-0786-0.
  • Wacher, T., Bauman, K. & Cuzin, F. Vulpes zerda. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T41588A46173447. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T41588A46173447.en