The largest populations of fennec fox occur in the central Sahara, though this diminutive fox can be found in mountainous and desert regions from northern Morocco, east along the northern tip of the Red Sea to Kuwait, and south into northern Nigeria and Chad.
Fennecs are highly specialized for life in the deserts being found almost exclusively in arid, sandy regions. The presence of desert grasses and/or light scrub vegetation is important, as fennecs use these plants to for shelter and to line their dens.
As omnivores in a desert environment, fennec foxes will consume almost anything available. Small rodents, lizards, birds, eggs, and insects are all common prey. Fruit, leaves and roots are an important part of the diet of fennecs, as they provide almost 100 percent of the animal’s hydration. Fennecs can go indefinitely without free water, and are known to cache extra food.
The fennec fox is the smallest member of the dog family (canidae). They range in size from 1.76 lbs in females to 3.3 lbs in males. Fennec foxes are even smaller than an average house cat. The tails of these foxes account for nearly 60 percent body length.
Fennec foxes are highly social animals, living together in family groups that may number up to 10 individuals. These kin-based groups usually include at least one breeding pair, a litter of immature pups, and perhaps a few of the pups’ older siblings. Territory is marked by both urine and scat.
The gregarious nature of fennec foxes is evident in their frequent and varied vocalizations. Both adults and pups chatter, whimper, wail, growl and shriek. Fennec foxes are nocturnal hunters and need places to sleep during the day for shelter from the hot desert sun as well as predators. For this reason fennec foxes dig burrows and use these as dens to rear pups. Often they become extensive tunnel systems and may posses several entrances from which the fennecs can flee if enemies arrive. Burrows are usually dug beneath desert bushes, allowing the roots of the plants to provide support for tunnel walls. Leaves are used to line the female’s nesting chamber. In some cases several fennec families may live together, sharing a complex den. Even when this cohabitation occurs, fennecs, like other foxes, still prefer to hunt alone. Fennecs are opportunistic feeders, and cache food for a later meal. They remember these cache sites well from season to season.
Fennec foxes perceive their environment primarily through highly developed senses of hearing and smell. Their enormous ears are able to filter sound through many centimeters of sand, and can detect subtle differences between whines and whimpers in the calls of other fennecs. A reflective retina called a tapetum enhances night vision. This adaptation creates the illusion of glowing eyes and is characteristic of nocturnal animals.
Social rank among fennec foxes is communicated mainly through play. As social animals, they use visual and tactile communication.
Fennec fox breed once a year in January and February and after an average of 50 days 1 to 6 (average = 3) kits are born. For about two months the young drink milk from their mother until they are weaned to an omnivorous diet. At some point between 6 and 9 months the young become independent of their mother and both male female fennecs reach reproductive maturity between 6 and 9 months.
Fennec foxes are born blind and helpless and weigh only 50 grams. Their mother cares for them in the den for the first 2 weeks, until their eyes open. At 4 weeks the young begin to play within the den and at 5 weeks play extends to the area just outside the den entrance. The kits of fennecs suckle longer than those of most foxes, and weaning may not occur until nearly 3 months of age. Young may be licked, carried, and closely watched for up to 70 days.
Fennecs mate for life and this monogamous pairing creates a social structure where each breeding couple (or family – fennec parents often utilize the help of older siblings in caring for offspring) have their own territory. Urine and fecal deposits mark this territory. Fennecs aggressively defend both their territory and pups.
Father and mother work together during the prolonged care of the young. Males bring food to the family and watch for dangers to playing pups. Fennecs foxes aggressively protect their young, and this added protection for the pups may be a reason to maintain community structure.
Fennecs can live for up to 10 years in the wild while captive fennecs may survive for up to 12 years.
The enormous ears of fennec foxes are perhaps their most distinctive feature. Cartoonish in proportion to the skull, the huge, 6 inch-long pinnae are used both to dissipate heat and to locate prey moving under the sand. Their little feet are heavily furred, protecting the pads from the hot desert sand.
Fennecs are so well adapted for desert life that they do not need to drink. However, eating vegetation can be a source of water in extreme times of need.
Little is known about what animals prey on fennecs, though it seems safe to assume that some do. Fennec fox dens are designed for quick escape, and the sand-colored fur which aids stalking of prey may also help them evade detection by larger, fiercer animals. Excellent hearing surely allows fennecs to locate and avoid predators.
Fennecs do not have any known negative impact on humans, and why native peoples of the Sahara are hunting them into decline remains unclear.
Fennec foxes are important predators to their ecosystems because they help to control the numbers of prey species like rodents and insects.
US Federal List: No special status.
CITES: Appendix II; Appendix III.
Fennecs once ranged broadly over northern Africa, but sport hunting and intrusion by humans are shrinking their habitat and increasing their scarcity. The IUCN Red List cites fennecs as Data deficient. CITES places fennecs in Appendix II in Austria, and Appendix III in Denmark and Tunisia.
Adams, R. and P. Myers. 2004. “Vulpes zerda” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 07, 2006 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Vulpes_zerda.html.