The rise and fall…and rise...of the island fox
20 years ago, foxes on Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Southern California, started dying at an alarming rate. Their numbers dropped to around one hundred animals. But nobody knew why. It was an ecological whodunnit that needed to be solved before the foxes disappeared forever.
For an ecologist like me, Santa Cruz island is a bit of a dream. Island can provide a totally unique environment to study communities of wildlife and how different species interact.
Santa Cruz Island is one of four islands in Channel Islands National Park. And it is home to a quite famous fox. It is like no “apex predator” I’ve ever seen before. These aren’t the type of foxes you might see on the mainland. These island foxes are small, very small.
“They're ferocious, four pound carnivores that have no fear,” says Lara Brenner. She is an island biologist and works for The Nature Conservancy that owns and manages a large portion of Santa Cruz Island as a nature preserve. “They're curious. They're mischievous to the point of being annoying sometimes. These foxes almost look like they were, designed by people to be cute sometimes, like a cartoon character.”
Big eyes, fluffy tails. The kind of animal you want to pick up and bring home.
These foxes are endemic to the Channel Islands, meaning they are found here and nowhere else in the world. But about 20 years ago, people on these islands started noticing fewer and fewer foxes on the landscape. Their numbers were crashing dramatically….on Santa Cruz island they dropped to around one hundred animals.
‘And this is the time when people start sounding the alarm and saying, Where are the foxes? Something's happening,’ said Brenner. ‘Nobody knew what was happening. But we just knew that they were suddenly vanished.’
It was an ecological whodunnit that needed to be solved before the foxes disappeared forever. The clock was ticking.
What scientists discovered was a cascade of curiously connected events involving toxic waste, feral pigs, and a couple of New Zealanders jumping out of a helicopter.
Recommended Links from Chris Morgan:
The Nature Conservancy Island Fox Program
THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan and Wildlife Media. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.