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While there are many different species of foxes in the world, few areas specialized or unique as the bat eared fox.
This animal, which only weighs about 12–14 pounds at maturity, has oversized ears that tower above its head and can grow over 5 inches long. Their ears give these foxes a comical appearance; however, despite the huge ears that gave them their name, these animals are successful within their habitat and have learned to survive despite human encroachment. If the future of this fox is to be protected, it is important to learn about its life cycle and habits to better understand its needs and how conservation efforts may improve the bat-eared fox’s chances for survival.
What is A Bat Eared Fox?
Bat-eared foxes are mammals, meaning that they are warm-blooded and give birth to live young. They are a smaller species, with some specimens weighing less than 10 pounds. Adults grow to be approximately 2 feet long, including the tail, which tends to display the typical bushy growth of most other foxes. Their coat color ranges from dun to grey and goldenrod, which may help them blend in with their savannah environment. The bat eared fox is found only in Africa, where it roams the eastern and southern plains and can be found in almost half a dozen countries on the continent.
Bat-eared foxes have different markings than those of their North American cousins. In fact, this fox is marked more like a raccoon, with darker hair around its eyes, ears, and tail tip. Its legs are also shorter than those of other foxes. This may be due to its diet as it helps the animal stay low to the ground when hunting prey, which consists largely of insects. Its long muzzle is perfectly suited to lap up food that includes dung beetles, termites, and ants. The fox’s trademark ears act as a cooling system and allow heat to escape from the animal’s body, which keeps it from overheating in the baking savannah heat. They also allow the fox to hear insects feeding in the plains grasses when it hunts at night.
Mating and Rearing
A female bat eared fox is ready to mate by the age of nine months, although she is fully mature around six to seven months of age. Unlike some predators, these foxes do not have specific territories, so it is usually not difficult for males and females to find each other. Once foxes pair up, they tend to stay with one mate, although they also observe trios. The mother fox gives birth after two months, and there may be as many as six kits in one litter. However, it is rare for all to survive to maturity, as they can fall prey to illness, a lack of milk or predators such as hyenas and large birds of prey.
Once the kits are born, both parents play an active role in their upbringing. The father watches over the kits while the female forages for insects to bolster her milk supply. In the meantime, the father grooms protect and coach the kits in typical fox behavior as they grow. If insect populations are plentiful, females may forage together in pairs or small groups. The female forages for herself and does not bring back insects for her kits, as they will learn to hunt on their own once they start leaving the birthing den, about 12 days after they are born. The mother will nurse the kits for up to 15 weeks, but they teach them how to forage by the father during this time as well. Kits leave the group when they are about six months old to find mates of their own.
Because these foxes are insectivores and small in size, they often take them as prey by other, larger predators. Big cats such as leopards, lions, and cheetahs all prey on bat-eared foxes, as do large snakes and one of the most successful savannah hunters, the African wild dog. The foxes use their large ears to stay alert, and if one or more females are foraging, one or two will usually act as a lookout in case danger approaches.
When pursued by a predator, the bat eared fox has speed and agility on its side. And will use its large tail for balance as it moves rapidly from side to side to evade a predator. Most often, they will flee for the underground den, where they will likely be safe from most larger hunters. One family of foxes might have a variety of entrances and exits throughout one territory. This is to avoid becoming trapped by a predator.
Habitat, Hunting, and Behavior
Bat-eared foxes are indigenous to Africa and can be found mainly in the Kalahari and Botswana regions. Where the kits are born between September and December. The foxes are mainly nocturnal and use their huge ears to locate insects underground. Termites make up a large portion of a bat-eared fox’s diet. But they will also eat other insects and arachnids, such as small scorpions and spiders. They may also eat small birds, but this is not a common practice. Eating insects also provide these foxes with the moisture they need, so there is usually little need for them to fresh water daily, unlike some larger savannah animals.
Because bat-eared foxes are generally not aggressive to others of their kind, there are rarely any battles over territory. However, these animals will protect their dens and kits with a variety of communication signals that include their ears, head, and tail. The tail can be particularly important for signaling. As the foxes use it to display when they are feeling playful, aroused, angry, alert or frightened. When threatened, a bat eared fox can stiffen its fur so it appears larger to predators. Which might then think twice about attacking. This defense mechanism is vital for an animal that rarely weighs over 12 pounds.
Call of the Wild
In addition to using their tails and body language to communicate, a bat eared fox also make about half a dozen different sounds. That range from low grunting to chittering to a sound that almost resembles the laugh of a hyena. These sounds are primarily used for calling to each other during foraging and to alert others to danger. Especially if a den is threatened. These foxes do not generally vocalize. And prefer to use body language to display dominance and when they are ready to mate.
Threats to the Species
Bat-eared foxes are clever, opportunistic animals that have learned to adapt to their changing environment. They are generally not prized for their fur. And since they are mostly insectivorous, they do not have to compete for meat like larger savannah predators do. However, while they are not considered to be endangered and the populous seems to be stable, the bat eared fox does face a few threats to its survival.
One of the greatest dangers this fox face is a human encroachment into its habitat. When grassland is cleared for grazing cattle, nearby dens are often cleared out. Because the farmers mistakenly believe the foxes will attack their cows. Kits are often taken for the underground pet trade because of their small size and comical appearance. However, conservationists are trying to discourage this practice. As the foxes typically cannot be domesticated and may attack humans if they feel threatened. A bat eared fox will typically live up to seven or eight years in the wild. But may survive up to 12 years in captivity.
Because the bat eared fox population is currently not threatened in any serious manner, conservation efforts are limited. It is to offering the animals protected wildlife parks in which to hunt and breed freely. There are also several breeding programs that exist in zoos around the world. The San Diego Zoo has been especially successful in breeding their foxes since the mid-1960s. And their handlers have seen over 20 kits born since then. There are also several wildlife funding projects that are working to defend the habitat of the bat eared fox.
What Can You Do?
If you want to see the bat-eared fox continue to thrive as a species, there are several actions you can take. Write to your local and international conservation groups. And ask them to include information on this fascinating animal in their animal databases. Speak up about the illegal pet trade and join groups that are working to make the ownership of wild animals. Including all breeds of fox, illegal. While the trade of bat-eared fox kits in the U.S. is not widespread, the ownership of foxes as pets is becoming popular. And is even legal in most states. If this trend continues, the bat-eared fox may be at risk.
A Final Word
While the bat eared fox is not as well known as its North American cousin, it is still a vital component in the African ecosystem. Because of its ability to control the termite population. While not currently endangered, its future remains uncertain as new settlements, roads and farms invade the savannah. Over the next decade, as the human population continues to grow in Africa, that of the bat eared fox may shrink significantly. Through understanding and conservation, everyone can help. This is to ensure the survival of this unique and beautiful savannah animal for generations to come.Featured image via DepositPhotos