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December 2019
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Quiet Back-Country Heroics – The life of a fox biologist can be grueling. On top of the physical demands of navigating Catalina’s rugged topography, biologists must know how to deal with permits, must have special skills and training, and must possess a solid understanding of fox biology and ecology. The Conservancy’s three-person fox team – consisting of Senior Wildlife Biologist Julie King, Wildlife Biologist Calvin Duncan and seasonal Plant Technician Tyler Dvorak – possess those skills and more. This year they covered the entire island, systematically setting and checking hundreds of traps.
Traveling over miles of Catalina’s hilly, rocky terrain to set traps in the evening is a big job. But first thing in the morning, it’s back to the sites to check the traps for foxes. That repeated routine can make for short nights, long days, and tough weeks. Of course, as the fox numbers increased, the trapping success did, too, translating into more time needed to work up all of the animals. With such a large amount of work for three biologists on a dedicated recovery mission, bringing guests on the trapping missions wasn’t very practical. But for this month’s issue, they offered to give us an insider’s view of a trapping mission and offer the reader a glimpse into what a typical fox “work-up” involves.

Biologist Duncan summed up a fox “work-up” and health assessment for Island Naturalist: “Upon their capture, foxes are weighed, sexed and aged,” Duncan said. “Age is determined by relative wear and dentin exposure on the first upper molar. We record reproductive condition, presence of ectoparasites (i.e., fleas, ticks, and lice – those that invade skin or hair follicles), eye condition, general physical condition, and evidence of infectious disease or traumatic injuries.

“The foxes are given otoscopic examinations to record the presence or absence of ear mites and the extent of their invasions, the health of the ear tissue and the presence or absence of ear tumors,” Duncan continued. “Ectoparasites are treated with Frontline®, and ear mites are treated with Ivermectin®.” Both medicines are often used on domestic dogs.

Duncan said that all foxes new to the Conservancy counts – not previously trapped – are marked with a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag, or microchip, which is inserted under their skin on the scruff of their necks. The majority of foxes are also vaccinated against canine distemper virus (CDV) and rabies. A subset of 50 to 60 foxes is fitted with radio collars to help the Conservancy monitor them for survival.

“Foxes found with minor injuries are treated in the field, while foxes with more serious or life-threatening injuries are transferred to the Middle Ranch Wildlife Veterinary Clinic for treatment and care,” Duncan said. “Once treated, these animals are returned to their territories.” This routine is done for virtually every fox captured. “It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding,” Duncan said.

You can see why fieldwork is so important. It allows biologists to examine a large subset of the population and see firsthand if individuals are healthy. The biologists can tell if particular animals are gaining or losing weight between trappings. They can judge if youngsters are growing normally and if the population is increasing or decreasing over time. Long hours and intensive fieldwork like this have been instrumental in bringing the Catalina Island fox back from the brink of extinction. Our biologists don’t describe themselves as heroes, but when you talk to your visitors about them, you’d be forgiven if you did.  Their work is literally making the difference in this remarkable species’ recovery!

Living with Foxes: What you can do

Issue #9 / All About Foxes


Dramatic Rebound Continues!
Living with Foxes: What You Can Do
Fact or Fiction?: Conservancy Sets Fox Policy
Did You Know … Fox, Manzanita Interaction

Photo courtesy of Julie King

This Catalina Island fox was photographed in its natural habitat.



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