California’s Island Fox Safe from Extinction

These adorable little foxes almost disappeared in the 1990s due to the strong presence of predatory golden eagles in their habitat: the six Channel Islands of California. Each island has a slightly different subspecies of fox, all of which were severely threatened until now. 

The tiny “dwarf” foxes are thought to be descended from gray foxes from mainland U.S.A. and evolved separately on each island. Originally golden eagles did not inhabit the Channel Islands, but were drawn there by the wild pig population. 

To save the foxes, breeding programs were set up on several islands and hunters were brought in to remove the non-native pig and sheep populations to allow the vegetation, which the foxes depend on, to regrow. The golden eagles were captured and returned to the mainland. 

The recovery of the foxes has been surprisingly quick and they are nearly ready to come off the endangered species list. Scientists worry, however, that the gene pool of all subspecies shrunk during the population decimation. This may mean the foxes will be less able to handle disease and climate change. One idea is to create a hardier species by cross-breeding several subspecies. 

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