FOXFAX: Five Facts About the World’s Most Adorable Foxes

Urocyon littoralis are foxes the size of housecats that are found only on California’s Channel Islands. I am obsessed with them. Here are five facts about them, plus PICTURES, lucky you.

1/ Channel Islands foxes are the least genetically diverse wild animals known to science. That’s got lots of ramifications for their protection — they’re on the federal endangered species list — as well as the protection of other island species. Read more about it at Pacific Standard.

Channel Island foxes. Photo courtesy of Chuck Graham, CC BY 2.0.

2/ Each Channel Island that hosts foxes has its own subspecies. For example, San Miguel Island foxes have shorter tails because they have one fewer tail vertebra than their cousins on other islands. Note that the largest Channel Island, Santa Cruz Island, is less than 100 square miles* in area.

3/ Each subspecies may be locally adapted to its own tiny kingdom. Certain Channel Islands’ fox populations are more genetically diverse, and thus healthier, than others’. San Nicholas Island’s foxes are the worst off, genetically. Thus, some conservationists have considered importing foxes from, say, Catalina Island to San Nicholas, says Robert Wayne, a UCLA biologist who led a recent whole-genome study of Urocyon littoralis. But Wayne thinks such imports are a bad idea. “All of the San Nicholas foxes are genetically distinct. They define their own population,” he says. In addition, he thinks the Channel Island fox subspecies may have local adaptations that scientists aren’t aware of yet.

Channel Island fox pup. Photo by the National Park Service.

4/ The rescue of the island foxes is considered one of conservation biology’s greatest success stories. In the early 2000s, fox populations on certain Channel Islands had plummeted, due in part to a strange dynamic. Years of DDT use had killed off the islands’ native bald eagles, leaving a vacuum that golden eagles moved in to fill. Unlike bald eagles, golden eagles killed and ate Channel Island foxes. The National Park Service relocated golden eagle nests and bred foxes, among other activities, to bring the Urocyon littoralis back from the brink.

Fox breeding pens on Santa Rosa Island. Photo by the National Park Service.

5/ Channel Islands foxes are quantitatively the cutest fox species on Earth. According to the widely recognized and independently verified Diep Adorability Scale.

BE FREE, FOX. A technician releases a Channel Island fox into the wild. Photo by the National Park Service.

*Originally said “feet” here. Thanks to Maryn McKenna for catching that.