Posts Tagged ‘Bat-eared Fox’

bat-eared fox

I have not yet been asked to review the new film Alpha, which is a story about early dog domestication. I have not seen the film yet, but I do want to see it.

I do think we need to get beyond the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I think there have been some serious attempts recently, but I’m not going to play around with that right now.

Instead, I’m going play around with some speculative domestication reverie. Forgive me my flights of fancy. I must play around a bit.

Let’s say that domestication didn’t involve wolves at all. Let’s say it happened with a very different canid.

And you really can’t get more different from wolves than bat-eared foxes are. Bat-eared foxes are odd little creatures. They are intensely social foxes that live almost entirely upon harvester termites. They do eat other things, and they have even been known to scavenge carrion. But most of what they eat is harvester termites.

Let’s say that somewhere in East Africa some 50,000 years ago, a wandering band of nomad came into the land, but found the whole countryside devoid of game.  The only quadruped messing about the scene were several bands of bat-eared foxes.

And the hunters speared the foxes and ran them down and roasted their bodies on campfires and ate away at their manky fox flesh and hoped the spirits would bring forth a kudu or an impala from the bush.

So for many weeks, the people hunted the bat-eared foxes, and they choked down the fox meat.

But then the fox numbers dwindled, and the disgusting pains of hunger swept through the people. And the babies starved to death, and the children grew gaunt in the piercing sun.

And so the hunters set out on a big journey into the rising sun hoping that they would some place so wondrous as to have plentiful hoofed game.

One hunter, though, knew of a little trick that he’d learned from the hot days of fox chasing in the sun. He knew that the bat-eared foxes like to hang near the termite nests, and he knew that if he staked out one big termite nest, he’d eventually run into a fox.

For two hot days he sat in silence. But on the nightfall of that second day, he the hoary gray form of a bat-eared fox. It was a vixen, and she was all heavy with milk.

Her form was gaunt and tight, and he teats were all swollen with the milk. And the hunter felt pity for her, and so he could not cast his spear upon her.

He sat there watching as she picked up the termites and marveled her rapid mastication.  Rare is the hunter who can avoid watching his quarry and empathizing with it. It is man’s ability to empathize with an animal that ultimately makes him great hunter. It is his ability enter into the animal’s mind and see its ways and its habits as the animal sees it.

But he still can kill it and kill it with skill.  It’s just that every once in a while, the empathy subsumes the hunter, and he feels that odd profound kinship with the animal. It is a feeling I have felt so profoundly on my own hunts, and it is one that I know has made me pass up more than a few shots.  And these are the feelings I do not wish to lose. If I do, I will be a monster, not a fully human hunter.

So the hunter sat and watched the vixen eating the termites, and he let her pass. He then followed her tracks through the arid country. He kept his distance back on the trail, hoping that he would not spook her.

He followed her out of nothing more than curiosity, and as he followed her, he noticed the cloven hoofs of a kudu. The fox and the kudu were following the same trail,  so the hunter knew that if he tired of his little fox tracking, he might be able to get on a kudu trail and bring home some nice meat for the band.

As he followed the trail, the kudu sign grew fresher and fresher. And out of the bush, a young kudu materialized out of the heat waves.  Both hunter and kudu were suprised to encounter each other, but the hunter knew to throw his spear.  It hit home, and the kudu ran and ran. The hunter followed its blood trail, and then found the beast lying in its death throes.

He dispatched the kudu with a simple blow to the head, and it became meat in very short order.

The hunter covered his kill and began the journey back to where he had left his companions. He had dropped a kudu bull, and they would soon have food to eat.

But he had to make his way carefully home, for the stench of blood could bring in lions and hyenas. So he started homeward,  when he sensed presence of another being staring at him.

When he turned to look for his stalker, he was shocked to find the vixen standing upon a little boulder. She was transfixed by him, and he was amazed by her.

He turned to walk away, and the bat-eared fox squall-barked.  He turned to look in her direction. He waved a blessing at her, and then turned to walk again. The vixen squall-barked again, this time with frantic intent.

The hunter turned to look at the fox, but then another movement caught his eye, He turned his head to make his eyes register upon the form before him, and then he realized that a young male lion had come to stalk him. It had been trailing the wounded kudu, and now, it had come upon a bit of human flesh. All it had to do was lie in wait, and there would be a kill.

The hunter stood tall on his legs and reached for his spear. He had but one opportunity to make the lion fall as it began to charge, and he knew that he had to make it count. Otherwise, he would be lion’s meat.

He made his spear aim dead on the lion, and as the beast began its horrific charge, the hunter steeled his nerves  and began his spear cast. It home just as the lion’s charge reached within ten feet of him.  The arrow hit the lion lungs, and her ran off in terror to die the death of a mortally wounded beast.

But the hunter lived. And he owed his survival to the little squall-barks of the bat-eared vixen.

He just began to make his way home when he herd the sound of many hoof-beats. All around him were vast herd of zebra and wildebeest.  And there were many kudu and impala flitting about.

In his journey following the bat-eared fox, he had accidentally stumbled onto some game rich country, and he had to bring his people here.

And he had to make them thank the fox.

And so these people survived a long bout of famine all thanks to their guardian spirit, a little bat-eared fox.

And so the legend was passed through all the people’s children and their children and their children’s children.  And the people came to revere the fox, and bring the kits into their villages and make them their guardians and good luck talismans.

And soon there were whole populations of bat-eared fox that lived in villages and ate people food along with their normal insectivory.

And they followed the people out of Africa into Eurasia, where they diversified into so many forms.

And the bat-eared fox is found on every island and on every continent where people exist.

Some herd our chickens and ducks. Others keep malaria mosquitoes at bay, while others rat as proper terriers do in our present reality.

But in this reality, man’s best friend is the bat-eared fox, not the domesticated wolf. And wolves themselves never survived into the present era. It was too clunky and too churlish to fit into the world dominated by man, and it was fully extirpated from all the land.

And so I’ve laid out some silly reverie of speculative domestication. Forgive me my folly. I sometimes can’t help it.




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Wow. What a find on my lawn!anka bat-eared fox zoom


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bat-eared fox vs cheetah

As I noted in an earlier post, I am skeptical that the extinct North American “cheetahs” are the root cause of the pronghorn’s speed.  I am not alone in this skepticism, but my skepticism is rooted in the evasion strategy that pronghorns use. They flat-out run, whereas the antelope that are part of the true cheetah’s prey sources often use complex twisting and turning behavior to evade the swift cat. The pronghorn is a super long-distance runner, and its evasion strategy is more in keeping with a creature that was hunted by long-running dogs or perhaps the only hyena that ever existed on this continent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cheetahs lately. A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of Nature on PBS in which the filmmakers were putting cameras on various animals. They put some cameras on some young cheetahs, and I was somewhat surprised at a species they seemed to like to target.  They were constantly harrying and harassing bat-eared foxes.

It was at that moment that two ideas I had in my head were connected.  I’d been toying around with writing something on this space about the Afrikaans name for the bat-eared fox, which is “draaijakkals.” The name means “turning jackal,” and the animal got this name because when a dog would get after one, it would start twisting and turning as it ran.  Now, this certainly would be the fox for sighthound enthusiasts to course.

But it really doesn’t need this skill to hunt its prey. In South Africa, it was believed they were a threat to lambs, but the truth is that 80-90 percent of their diet consists of one species of harvester termite, which don’t require much chasing.

Their running behavior is an evasion strategy, not a hunting strategy.

Why does this fox have such a gazelle-like evasion strategy? Well, I will engage in a bit of speculative zoology here:

The cheetah did it.

Cheetahs do not regularly target bat-eared foxes, but when they do, they are successful pretty often. Gus and Margaret Mills, who studied cheetahs in Kalahari, reported that cheetahs rarely hunt bat-eared foxes, but when they did, they managed to catch and kill their quarry 44.4 percent of the time. One emaciated cheetah queen, though, came to target bat-eared foxes as a major part of her diet.

Cheetahs are not migratory species, but many of their prey sources are.  And during times in which ungulates can’t be hunted, some of them could very well come to rely upon bat-eared foxes as their favored prey.

Although bat-eared foxes do derive from a basal lineage of vulpine foxes, the exact species first appeared in the fossil record 800,000 years ago.  And they evolvedin areas where cheetahs were present.

This little hypothesis has some problems. One of them is that cheetahs don’t often target bat-eared foxes, but we do know cheetahs will when they are unable to hunt ungulates.

But does cheetah predation on bat-eared foxes happen enough to have had that effect upon the canid’s evasion strategy?

I don’t know if we can answer that question, but it seems to me that the bat-eared foxes’ odd twisting and turning and doubling back behavior comes from cheetah predation as a selection pressure.

It is worth considering. Maybe I am way off, but I don’t know of any other canid that runs from predators in this fashion.

Or maybe it’s just another Just-So Story.



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Baby bat-eared foxes

Look at the ears!

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Part I:


Part II:


A general rule in canids is that bigger canids kill and persecute smaller ones. In this case, black-backed jackals are killing off Cape foxes.

That would not be such a problem, because leopards keep jackal numbers in check.

This is a great example of the mesopredator release hypothesis, which holds that when larger predators are removed from an ecosystem, the smaller predators become more numerous and the species they normally kill suffer as a result of this imbalance.

Of course, the ranchers don’t want jackals either, but I guarantee you that they’d rather have jackals than the leopards.

When top level predators are taken out, all sorts of things happen to the lower trophic levels.

Increased predation by jackals on these two species of fox is just a consequence of removing leopards from the ecosystem.



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As you know, bat-eared foxes have very strong pair bonds, and the yapping mate that comes up at the end is really not having a good day.

If we can say that animals can feel extreme anguish and alienation, then we can clearly see it here.


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One of the secrets of the dog family’s success is that they generally aren’t specialists.

Even the rodent-eating Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) will occasionally take a small antelope, like the common duiker or the mountain nyala.

And although there are several species of desert fox that eat large amounts of insects, none of them has specialized in eating only a single species.

However, there is a canid that lives almost exclusively on one insect species.

The species in question is the so-called “bat-eared fox” (Otocyon megalotis). 80-90 percent of its diet is the harvester termite (Hodotermes mossambicus).

We cannot say that the bat-eared fox is entirely specialized to this diet. If it cannot find harvester termites, it will eat other insects and maybe the odd lizard or small mammal.

But no other wild dog lives on such an insect-laden diet. These foxes have evolved to have more teeth than other canids– 48 versus the 42 teeth that all the other dogs have. And the teeth themselves are smaller and less designed for shearing. The selection pressures that keep most dogs with shearing carnassials have been removed from the bat-eared fox. The small teeth are well-designed fro gripping termites, even if they are not very good at cutting flesh.

After all, harvest termites aren’t particularly hard to hunt. All the fox needs to do is use its comically huge ears to locate the termites and then dig in and eat.

Compared with the complex cooperative hunting that one would observe in say a dhole or a wolf, this is pretty weak sauce.

However, bat-eared foxes do occasionally live within social groups that consist of a mated pair and one or two of the female offspring from a previous litter. These older offspring help the mated pair rear their young.

These foxes have very strong paternal parenting behavior. The male bat-eared fox regurgitates food for his offspring, and then he helps groom them and guard them while their mother forages. He also is known to play very rough with his babies. It is thought that male of this species is the parent most responsible for socializing the offspring and for preparing them for life on their own.

Now, paternal parenting behavior is very common in canids, but in no other species is the father this important to the development of the young. Typically, it is the father who take the kits out on their first termite hunt– often when they are only four weeks old!

No other male dog does this with his pups. The mother does almost nothing but nurse them.

s species has an unusually long lactation period of 14-15 weeks. Once the kits are weaned, both parents go foraging with them.

There is some debate as where bat-eared foxes fit on the canid phylogenetic tree. Early genetic assays and much of paleontology classified the bat-eared fox as a basal canid. Typical dog family phylogenetic trees have the bat-eared fox, the raccoon dog, and the Urocyon gray foxes as the most basal of all canids. Each is usually placed in its own monotypic subfamily.

However, the phylogenetic tree of Canidae that was drawn from sequencing the dog genome revealed that bat-eared foxes and raccoon dogs were more closely related to the true foxes (tribe Vulpini). The bat-eared fox is actually the most primitive of all extant Vulpini.

If we had hard time classifying the bat-eared fox, we also had a hard time naming them.

In English, this species has been called the spoon dog. It was so-named because its spoon-shaped skull.

In German, it is also known by this name, which in German is “Leffelhund.”

Settlers to the Dutch colonies of South Africa saw an affinity between this fox and the jackal. Ironically, one of the bat-eared foxes worst enemies is the black-backed jackal, and otocyon are no more jackals than they are vampire squid.

The names for them in Afrikaans refer to them as jackals: bakoorjakkals (“bowl-eared jackal”) or the draaijakkals (“turning jackal”).

The latter name comes from one of the escape strategies these foxes employ when they are hunted. If a bat-eared fox thinks its being pursued, it will repeatedly double back on its tracks– turning, if you will. This behavior will confound hounds and even expert trackers, and it will allow the fox a chance to escape.

The bat-eared is a marvelous little animal. It’s unlike virtually anything else produced through the evolution of the dog family.

It has these bizarre ears and a bizarre diet to boot. It’s the only dog species that has essentially forsaken meat as major part of its diet.

But it’s also known for its cohesive family units and rather moving paternal parenting behavior.

Bat-eared foxes are in no way endangered. Their somewhat specialized diet continues to serve them well.

At some point, harvester termites might become scarce, but the bat-eared foxes can learn to eat other insects.

And there is no evidence that insects in general are becoming more scarce.

So even with this unusual diet, the bat-eared fox is doing fine.

They are certainly strange-looking little animals.

But they certain have behaviors that humans might admire.

I bet the part of this post you remember most is the father bat-eared fox taking his little four-week-old babies out on their first termite hunt.

We admire animals that are like us– even if they eat bugs!




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Nursing Otocyons!

These little bat-eared foxes are getting some milk from their mother.

When they are eventually weaned, their diet will become something very unusual among canids.

These foxes, which are found in southern and East Africa, are specialists.

Harvester termites comprise up to 90 percent of their diet.

Most other wild dogs are generalists.  The Ethiopian wolf lives almost entirely on big-headed mole rats.  Over 90 percent of its diet consists of that species.

But virtually all other species of canid eat more than one thing, and Ethiopian wolves will hunt other species when it is given an opportunity.

But the bat-eared fox is adapted to eating termites. It has more teeth than any other canid species, but these numerous teeth are very small and have a much reduced cutting surface than one would find in other canids.

No other canid species has specialized in this way.

If the harvester termites become extinct, the bat-eared foxes will likely follow them.

Or they might adapt to a more generalist canid diet.

But because their teeth are so different, it will be harder for them to get the same amount of nutrition from trying to hunt rodents and other small mammals.

Maybe evolution could throw them a bone, and they could re-evolve the dentition necessary for a generalist diet.


But one shouldn’t assume that it would.

Re-evolving dentition necessary for a generalist diet would have to be built upon the specialist adaptations.

And it would still likely put them at a disadvantage when it comes to other small canids.

See related post:

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I’m all ears

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I don’t think the fox is fully grown, but it’s almost the same proportions from lion to fox as it is from cat to chipmunk.

It’s a cat eat dog world out there.

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