Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Shrinky Dink: The Channel Island Fox and The Island Effect

If you (as a species) get trapped on an island, there is really one of three things that can happen.  The first thing, which seems to be like it would be the most common of the three things, is that you and your species would go extinct on the island.  Perhaps your species still survives on the mainland, but the island group has died off.  The second, and second most likely to happen (in my opinion) is you and your species, over many generations, shrink, to match the food supply.  If there is a limited supply of food, then the smallest of your species, not the largest, are much more likely to survive.  And the third happenstance is that you and your species grow in size over many generations.  Say you and your species are rats.  On the mainland, you are preyed upon by dogs, foxes, coyotes, cats, and the like.  When you and other of your rat buddies became trapped on the island, there was an abundnace of food there, but no predators to prevent you from growing bigger.  So grow you did.  We will talk about a very interesting occurrence of this later on. This shrinking and growing, called "Foster's Rule," is often simply known as "The Island Rule."

For now, however, we are going to focus on the more common of the two, and the more interesting (both in my opinion); island dwarfism.  This has occurred many, many times throughout history, and even to humans!  However, today we are going to look at one particular occurrence of this dwarfism.  The Channel Island fox of the Channel Islands off of the coast of California.

Scientists believed that the ancestors of these foxes "rafted" to the northernmost islands in the island chain sometime between 10,400 and 16,00 years ago.  These ancestors would have been the gray fox, very similar to the ones we see today.  The foxes rafted over during the last Ice Age.  This would have dramatically lowered the sea levels, and much of the water that is in today's oceans would be locked away in the ice caps at the poles, or in glaciers.

As you can see in the map below, the four islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa are all located with only shallow water separating them.  During the Ice Age, with the lower sea levels, these four islands were all one island, called Santa Rosae.  Also at this time, the distance from the mainland to the "mega-island" would be much smaller, making the crossing for these gray foxes much easier.  It has been theorized that Native Americans then brought the fox to the four southern islands, as hunting dogs, or perhaps even pets. 
The mainland gray fox.  Photo credit Zack Neher, taken at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.
Today, the fox only lives on six of the eight islands, with distinct sub-species on each island.  The fox still inhabits the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, San Nicolas, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina (often simply called Catalina Island), and is absent from the islands of Anacapa and Santa Barbara.  While Santa Barbara is too small to support the food needs of the fox, Anacapa has no consistent source of fresh water.  The fox is the largest on Catalina, and the smallest on Santa Cruz.  The foxes on the southern three islands all have become separate at different dates, with the foxes of San Clemente estimated as being the oldest (becoming isolated between 3,400 and 4,300 years ago).  The San Nicolas fox is next, at around 2,200 years ago.  Finally, the foxes of Catalina Island, between 800 and 3,800 years ago.

Even smaller than the mainland kit and swift foxes, the Channel Island is the smallest of all of North America's foxes.  Like many island animals, the Channel Island fox is labeled as "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN, as they don't have much territory to spread into when humans influence them.  One influence was indirect, but still devastating for the foxes.  Prior to the 1990s, the golden eagle was a rare visitor to these islands.  The bald eagle, already well established in the area, was apparently a large deterrent for the golden eagle, preventing them from settling on the island.  DDT helped to eradicate the bald eagle on the Channel Islands, and with very few bald eagles in the area, the golden eagle moved into the gap: nature abhors a vacuum!

Anyways, the golden eagle, unlike the bald eagle (who is primarily piscivorous) would, and did, hunt the Channel Island foxes; at four times the foxes size, they were most definitely a force to be reckoned with.  That, coupled with diseases brought over from the mainland by domestic dogs, such as canine distemper, have also wreaked havoc upon the fox populations.  Conservationists are currently working on a solution, and tracking the foxes with radio collars seems to be helping them learn more about the foxes, in an attempt to prepare for the future. 


  1. Good article Zach. I even learned some new things. I would also like to add that the canine distemper virus is thought to have been brought over by raccoons hiding out in the hull of someones private boat. Once the owner found the stowaway they chased it into the water, where is swam to shore and infected the fox. The disease spread rampantly across the island until it reached the isthmus, where a population of ferrel cats created a buffer zone. On the other side of this buffer zone the foxes of the west end of the island remained safe, and they were later used to repopulate the rest of the island after a vaccine was distributed. The population is now even higher than predisease levels, but they are still considered endangered based on the possibility that a new disease could be introduced at any moment. Furthermore, raccoons are banned from Catalina, and sightings are to be reported at once.

  2. Wow, that's really interesting! Thank you so much! So that explains why they seem to be sighted fairly regularly, but are labeled as critically endangered! Thanks again!

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