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Fennec (Vulpes zerda) at Norfolk Zoo

Fennec ( Vulpes zerda ) at Norfolk Zoo

Order : Predators (Carnivora)
Subordination : Canine (Caniformia)
Family : Dogs (Canidae)
Tribe : Real foxes (Vulpini)
Genre : Vulpes
Type : Fennec
Scientific name
Vulpes zerda
( Zimmermann , 1780)

The fennec or desert fox ( Vulpes zerda ) is a species of fox from the genus Vulpes . It is the smallest of all wild dogs and lives in the sandy deserts of North Africa . The species shows numerous adaptations to the desert climate, such as its small body size, hairy soles and large ears, which are used for heat regulation . The fennec is nocturnal and crepuscular and eats as omnivores both invertebrates and small vertebrates as well as fruits and tubers.

Fenneks usually live in pairs; the usually two to five young per litter are born in March and April. During the gestation and suckling period, the male cares for and protects the female and the litter. The earthworks of the Fennec are usually simple and are usually dug in loose sand, only in solid ground does it take on more complex forms. The fennec's closest relative is the Afghan fox ( Vulpes cana ), which lives on the Arabian Peninsula , Iran and Afghanistan . Although Fenneks are regularly caught for their fur or for tourist demonstrations, the population is not considered threatened. The IUCN classifies the species as Least Concern (not endangered). The fennec has been used by the people of North Africa as a food and fur supplier since the Neolithic and has been kept as a pet, especially in North America, since the 20th century.


Physique and Physiology

The fennec is the smallest of all dog species and has very large ears. Its head-trunk length is 333–395 mm, the tail is 125–250 mm long. Its birth weight is between 80 and 187 g, the weight of adults 1.0 to 1.5 kg. The ears make up 20% of the body surface and are 86-104 mm long. This makes them proportionally larger than any other dog. The snout and legs are slender and delicate. The proportions of the skull correspond to those of other Vulpes species, but it has very large tympanic cavities , a typical feature of desert inhabitants. The tooth formula is I 3/3 - C 1/1 - P 4/4 - M 2/3, so the Fennec has a total of 42 teeth. They are smaller and narrower than other species in the genus. The penis bone (baculum) is 3 mm wide and comparatively long at 31–36 mm. 

Photo of two Fenneks
Two Fenneks in the Tokyo Zoo. Details of the coat as well as the hair on the ears and toes are easy to see.

The fur is sandy brown with a beige, reddish or gray tint. The underside of the body is lighter in color than the top. The ears have a dark back, their inside and their edges are covered in white. The eyes are relatively large and dark, a dark line runs from the inner corner down to the muzzle and frames it. A shorter line runs from the outer corner of the eyes towards the cheeks. The legs are reddish in color in individuals from the northern part of the distribution area. In animals from the south they are white in color. The fur is very thick and long. The hair on the toes extends beyond the soles and forms an insulating pad for the feet. The tail is densely hairy, its tip and the area around the viold gland are darkly colored. The females have three pairs of teats . The fennec changes its coat from summer to winter, with the summer coat being slightly shorter and lighter than the winter coat. Young animals show a similar fur pattern to adults, but are lighter and have little or no red in their fur. Their dark facial markings are only weakly pronounced. 

The kidneys of the fennec are designed to filter highly concentrated urine while using as little water as possible. The fennec's metabolism rate is very low, 33% below what animals of its size usually have. His heart is 40% smaller than what would be expected for his height. If the outside temperature is below 35 ° C, the fennec breathes at 23 puffs per minute. However, if this value is exceeded, the breathing rate can increase to up to 690 breaths per minute. The blood vessels in the ears and soles of the feet are widened when it is hot in order to release as much heat as possible to the outside. The fennec has 2n = 46 chromosomes .

Utterances and communication

Morning howl of a Fennec

The Fennec's voice is high and resembles that of small domestic dogs . His repertoire is extensive and sometimes melodious. Weak barking serves as a warning of predators, purring reminiscent of domestic cats as an expression of well-being. As a threatening gesture, the fennec let out a high-pitched yapping. Partners, parents, or other individuals with whom the animals have a positive relationship are greeted with squeaks. 


Map of Africa with distribution marked in green
Distribution area (green) of the Fennec. The Artareal encompasses the entire Sahara, but leaves out the humid and semi-arid regions along the Mediterranean coast, the Red Sea and the Sahel.

The distribution area of ​​the Fennec includes the entire Sahara and is limited by areas with a moderate or humid climate. The north-western limit of distribution is formed by the southern foothills of the Atlas , while the species area in Tripolitania extends almost to the coast. In Egypt it is roughly bounded by the Nile , but extends in the north to the northwestern Sinai Peninsula . In Sudan , the distribution area also includes areas further east than in Egypt, such as the Nubian Desert . Overall, however, the fennec is missing along the coastal region to the Red Sea . In Mauritania and Morocco , the fennec occurs up to the Atlantic coast . The southern limit of the distribution area marks the northern Sahel zone , where the fennec occurs up to about 14 ° N.

It is questionable whether there are or were occurrences of the fennec on the Arabian Peninsula . Several sightings were reported from there, but some of them were just footprints in the sand or Rüppellfüchse ( V. rueppelli ), which were mistaken for Fenneks. The IUCN does not assume that the species occurs east of the Sinai, other authors at least believe it is possible.


The habitat of the Fennec consists mainly of hyperarid sandy deserts (erg), where it builds its burrows in flat ground or in static dunes . Near the Moroccan Atlantic coast, however, the fennec also uses moderately vegetated dunes for its construction. Since the fennec depends on soft ground to dig its burrow, it is absent in areas without sand. The annual precipitation at the northern limit of the distribution area is around 100 mm, in the Sahel region it is 300 mm. Grasses of the genus Aristida and Ephedra Ephedra alata on large dunes and proso millet Panicum turgidum and Jochblätter ( Zygophyllum spp.) On smaller dunes often are the only vegetation in the habitat of the Fenneks. Acacias ( Acacia spp.) Are rarely found among them. Apparently, the fennec does not need direct access to water reservoirs.

Way of life

Diet and hunting behavior

Night shot of a Fennec examining a plastic bag for food
Fenneks regularly visit human settlements and tent camps to look for food.

The diet of the fennec is varied. It comprises mainly insects, small rodents such as gerbils ( Jaculus spp.), Gerbillus ( Gerbillus spp.) Or meriones ( Meriones spp.), Lizards , skinks , geckos , eggs and small birds such as stone larks ( Ammomanes deserti ) or grouse . In addition, the fennec eats fruits and some plant tubers.

Fenneks forage for food at dusk and at night and avoid the heat of the day. In winter, the activity phase extends into the morning. The mouse jumping typical of other Vulpes species was not observed in Fenneks. Fenneks regularly dig in the sand for insects and small vertebrates. The enlarged tympanic cavities enable them to perceive very deep noises and thus to hear movements in the sand. They bury excess food. Human settlements and camps are often sought out for food at night. Fenneks do not need to drink in the wild, but they will readily drink water and other liquids in captivity. They probably get the water they need for their organism from the liquid components of their food or by oxidizing the hydrogen they contain .

Social and territorial behavior

Fenneks live in smaller family groups that include the parents and the young of the last litter. They only form larger social associations in a confined space in captivity; such behavior has not yet been observed in the wild. Both young and adult Fenneks play frequently. In captivity, they display high levels of social attachment and usually sleep close together. Feces are usually buried in captivity.

The construction is about 1 m deep in the sand, if possible protected by vegetation. The more solid the subsoil, the more complex the tunnel system is as a rule: While the construction in loose sand often only consists of a single entrance, a 1–2.5 m long passage and a main chamber, structures with an area of 120 m² and 15 entrances found, some with 10 m long corridors. Individual buildings can be close together and even be connected to one another.

Reproduction and rearing of the young

The sexual cycle of the species includes a proestrus of about six days and only one to two days of estrus . The mating takes place in January and February and lasts for a mammal unusually long, up to 2 hours and 45 minutes. It is initiated by the female by stretching her tail to the side and offering herself to the male to climb. The gestation period is 50–52 days, so the litter takes place in March or April. In captivity, however, gestations lasting 62 and 63 days have also been observed, and Fenneks give birth here all year round. The litter consists of one to six, usually two to five, puppies. If the first litter dies, there can also be a second or even third litter. During the rutting, gestation and suckling season, males are very aggressive and defend the female and the litter against intruders and predators. The male also takes over the food supply during the time when the female is unable to do so.

The young are born blind and completely hairy. They open their eyes after 8–11 days and move independently for the first time at two weeks. The teeth erupt around the same time. From the third week of life the puppies eat meat for the first time, but they are suckled by the mother for 61–70 days. They show playful hunting behavior from the seventh week after birth. Sexual maturity is reached at 9-11 months. The young stay with their parents for around a year until the next whelping season begins.

Life expectancy and biotic factors

Microscopic photo of a roundworm on an intestinal mucosa
Ancylostoma caninum , a typical parasite of dogs , also affects the fennec.

The small member of the fox family is said to have a life expectancy of 6 to over 10 years. The highest recorded age of animals living in captivity so far is 14 years for a male and 13 years for a female.

A desert fox in the wild faces various environmental factors. Accordingly, a significantly lower average life expectancy of the species in freedom can be inferred. In its habitat there are several other desert dwellers who compete with the fennec as a potential predator due to its small body size. Of striped hyenas ( Hyaena hyaena ) and gold jackals ( Canis aureus ), but also from domestic dogs while the main threat comes from. Whether this also applies to the desert owl ( Bubo ascalaphus ) is not clear due to incomplete information.

The great mobility of the desert fox is probably its most effective mechanism for defense against potential predators. This becomes particularly clear in the low hunting successes, even when nimble greyhounds are targeted.

Within the species, there is only increased competition between the males during the sack . Therefore, arguments between them always end fatally during this period. In captivity, the animals are exposed to increased stress. Increased mortality, especially among newborns, is a clear symptom of this.

In addition to these obvious factors in its environment, there are a number of diverse parasites that use the fennec as a host. Infestation by various types of tapeworms and roundworms , as well as suction and hookworms has been proven. This also applies to infection with the parasitic unicellular coccidia .

The current main cause of the population decline is believed to be the added pressure on the desert fox species from humans and hunting that it cannot cope with.

Taxonomy and systematics

Position of the Fenneks within the genus Vulpes

Cape fox ( V. chama )


Bengal fox ( V. bengalensis )


Pale fox ( V. pallida )

Template: Klade / Maintenance / 3


Afghan fox ( V. cana )


Fennek ( V. zerda )


Kit fox ( V. macrotis )


Arctic fox ( V. lagopus )


Steppe fox ( V. corsac )


Tibetan fox ( V. ferrilata )


Red fox ( V. vulpes )


Rüppellfuchs ( V. rueppelli )

The closest relative of the species is the Afghan fox , whose range on the Red Sea adjoins that of the fennec

Erstbeschreiber the taxon Vulpes zerda is Eberhard August Wilhelm von Zimmermann . He described the species in 1780 in his work Geographical History of Humans and Four-footed Animals , but still as Canis zerda . He derived the specific epithet from a Berber name of the Fennec. Due to its small size and other morphological peculiarities, many authors put it in its own genus Fennecus . From the 1990s, however, it was increasingly assigned to the genus Vulpes , which was also confirmed by DNA studies. An earlier description by Anders Fredrik Skjöldebrand from 1777 is not valid because he did not choose a binomial with " Vulpes minimus Saarensis " . Some later authors tried to integrate this name into the Linnaeus system as " Vulpes minimus " . However, on the basis of an application submitted in 1976, it was finally suppressed and declared invalid by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 1980 in order to ensure the validity of the genus Vulpes with the red fox ( V. vulpes ) as a nominotypical taxon .

The fennec represents a more basic representative of the genus Vulpes . Its sister species is the Afghan fox ( V. cana ), which mainly inhabits arid mountain landscapes and scree deserts along the Red Sea , in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and in the Middle East . According to DNA analysis, the two species separated in the Pliocene 3–4.5 million years ago , when the desert regions that still exist today developed in Africa and the Middle East. The oldest fossil finds of the Fennec come from the late Pleistocene . The fennec is monotypical , that is, it has no subspecies .

Existence and endangerment

Reliable population estimates are lacking for the Fennec. Since the species is still regularly caught and sold in North Africa, it can be assumed that the population will at least not decline. The main threat to the population continues to be commercial hunting. In order to limit the hunting and sale of the Fennec as domestic animals, it was listed in Appendix II of the Washington Convention in 2000 ; but it is no longer listed there. The fennec is under protection in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. The IUCN classifies the fennec as harmless despite insufficient information about the population. The Canid Specialist Group of the IUCN declared the fennec a species with high research priority in 2007 in order to advance research in the wild.

Cultural history

Oil drawing of a boy with a fennec in his arms
Étienne Dinet : Jeune garçon au fennec , oil on paper, 24.5 × 27.5 cm. In the 19th century, the fennec was the subject of numerous works of art of orientalism .

The economic use and cultural reception of the Fennec go back far into human history. In the Neolithic Regenfeld site near Dachla , around 7000 year old fennec bones were found, which prove their use as food. The fennec can already be found in pre-dynastic times on an ivory tablet from the grave of Scorpion I , who ruled ancient Egypt in the Naqada III period (approx. 3200 BC) . A picture of a canid on the burial chapel of Nefermaat , sometimes interpreted as a Fennec, is, however, a striped jackal ( Canis adustus ). Even in ancient Egyptian times, attempts were probably made to domesticate the fennec in order to use it as a supplier of meat and fur; the hieroglyph ms (F31) shows three fennel heads tied together . Later it was sold by Arab hunters to the population of oases who used it in a similar way.

The originally Persian word fanak or fanaǧ was used by the Arabs asفنك / fanak applied to numerous fur animals and their fur and as “Fennec” the modern name for the desert fox. The epithet zerda can be derived from the Persian zarde , which means "yellow-blonde color" or "saffron" corresponds to the color of the animal's fur. The economic and cultural importance among the Arab population of North Africa was, however, far less than among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara. While the fennec rarely appears in Arabic poems and natural history works, there are six different names for the species in the Tuareg dialect Tamahaq alone . This very different perception can be traced back to the absence of the fennec in the cultural centers of Arabic, to its inconspicuous appearance and his reduce nocturnal lifestyle. In North Africa the fennec is still consumed today and hunted for its fur. In the Western Sahara , puppies are mostly caught, fattened and eaten, whereas the fennec is considered inedible in Morocco. Unlike the meat of all other dog species, that of the fennec is considered halāl , so it was traditionally not regarded as a canine relative by Islamic legal scholars.

With the emerging interest of European societies for the Orient, the fennec also moved into the consciousness of European artists. Painters like Paul Leroy and Étienne Dinet portrayed him primarily as a characteristic pet of the North African rural population. The onset of mass tourism in North Africa in the 20th century led to the fact that Fenneks were increasingly caught in order to photograph them, to display them for money or to sell them to travelers in markets. This is how Fenneks probably made it to the United States , where they are now common as pets. As such, they are especially popular because of their exotic origins, their attachment and their pronounced playful instinct. Young breeding pairs fetch prices of up to 1500 USD here .


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Web links

Commons : Fennek  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Fennek  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b Zimmermann 1780 , pp. 247–248.
  2. a b Wilson & Mittermeier 2009 , p. 364.
  3. Osborn & Helmy 1980 , p. 390.
  4. Larivière 2002 , pp. 2-3.
  5. a b Osborn & Helmy 1980 , p. 392.
  6. Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 , pp. 205-206.
  7. a b Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 , p. 205.
  8. a b c d Larivière 2002 , p. 3.
  9. a b Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 , p. 206.
  10. Osborn & Helmy 1980 , pp. 387-388.
  11. a b c Larivière 2002 , p. 2.
  12. Osborn & Helmy 1980 , p. 394.
  13. a b c Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 , p. 207.
  14. Wilson & Mittermeier 2009 , p. 446.
  15. Dempsey et al. 2009 , p. 301.
  16. a b c d Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 , p. 208.
  17. a b Osborn & Helmy 1980 , pp. 393-394.
  18. a b c Dempsey et al. 2009 , p. 300.
  19. Fennek | Profile | Animal lexicon. Retrieved July 20, 2017 (English).
  20. Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 , p. 209.
  21. Prasad 1961 , p. 131.
  22. Glover 1939 , p. 89.
  23. Clutton-Brock & Corbet 1976 , p. 112.
  24. Melville 1980 , p. 76.
  25. Larivière 2002 , p. 1.
  26. Wilson & Mittermeier 2009 , p. 445.
  27. CITES 2011 . Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  28. IUCN 2008 . Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  29. Bollig & Bubenzer 2008 , pp. 132-133.
  30. Manlius 2010 , p. 191.
  31. Manlius 2009 , p. 104.
  32. Wallen 2006 , p. 144.
  33. Cannon & Kaye 2001 , p. 84.
  34. NişanyanSözlük. Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojisi. Retrieved May 14, 2015 .
  35. Viré 1965 , p. 775.
  36. Wallen 2006 , p. 145.

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This article was added to the list of excellent articles on January 25, 2012 in this version .