x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

They're crazy for the foxes

The UAE has three distinct species of fox - but it also attracts a host of experts researching vulpine behaviour and habits. These scientists make considerable sacrifices for their studies, including contracting worms in the eye.

One for the mountains, one for the sands and one for all points between. The three fox species of the UAE have the country covered, either by adapting to extremes or by being extremely adaptable, says James "Jed" Murdoch, a world expert on the dog family, Canidae, and assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Vermont.

Take Blanford's fox, a species eking out an existence in the most remote and inaccessible mountain terrain in the country and subsisting, for the most part, on an ascetic's diet of insects and wild fruit. Though certainly a resident of the region for a very, very long time, Blanford's was discovered here only in 1995, a testament to its secretive nature and the harshness - from the human perspective, at least - of its environment.

Rüppell's fox, on the other hand, would not last long in a life-swap with Blanford's. It makes itself at home in the hot sands, gravel plains and inter-dunal salt flats to the south and the west. Whereas Blanford's fox has evolved sharp, cat-like claws and a luxurious, counterbalancing tail for jumping and climbing, Rüppell's has a scaled-down tail, dull claws and fur-covered paw pads more suited to digging and sand travel than negotiating vertical ascents.

In contrast to both, "the red fox is the widest-ranging carnivore in the world", says Dr Murdoch, occupying "grasslands, forests, deserts, tundra and even human-altered environments like cities". With an estimated range of 70 million square kilometres, representatives of this larger species roam slightly less than half the total land surface of the earth. And it is not what one would call a fussy eater. "The key to the red fox's success is their highly flexible and adaptive nature," says Dr Murdoch, quoting a study that documented the animals sampling from more than 300 food types.

"Unlike many other species, they have highly flexible diets - they can eat and sustain themselves on just about anything. "They have a flexible social system, as well. Some populations have even been shown to change their mating strategy between polygyny and monogamy and back again, depending on environmental conditions." A fascination with foxes and other canids - a family that includes everything from wolves, foxes and coyotes to Paris Hilton's chihuahua Tinkerbell - has taken Dr Murdoch, 35, pretty much around the world and, with his new job at the university, back again to his hometown, where as a child he would catch fleeting glimpses of a mischievous red fox that had its den nearby.

To earn his doctorate from Oxford University he spent three years in Mongolia, deciphering the inter-relationships between corsac foxes and the almost ubiquitous red. He has also worked on projects in Europe, Africa, and Asia, in addition to fox studies on his home continent. This month found him in Lusaka, Zambia, assisting with research on the African wild dog. "I have been interested in canids since I was a child," says Dr Murdoch, "however, the fascinating world of foxes was really introduced to me by a mentor, Dr Katherine Ralls of the Smithsonian Institution."

Foxes, he says, "are clever, secretive and intriguing creatures that live just about everywhere in the world. Few people, though, actually realise that they live all around us." It was work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where he helps to assess threat levels for the world's 35 canid species, 22 of which are foxes, that first brought him to the UAE, to set up a workshop on the status of Arabian canids, sponsored by Sharjah's Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.

"The workshop brought together wildlife experts from over 10 countries," says Dr Murdoch. "It was truly a remarkable experience." He also found himself "captivated by the culture and the stark beauty of the desert landscapes". One of his fondest recollections revolves around a survey of Rüppell's fox in the southwestern corner of Abu Dhabi emirate. "We set out from Abu Dhabi city with a car full of box traps, some bait and the blessings of [what is now the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi] to document whether foxes were present."

After hours of tough driving, the team arrived late and that evening had time to set out only 10 traps. "There was little evidence of foxes in the region, so we really did not expect much success," he recalls. "To my surprise, we captured four foxes during the night. Forty per cent trapping success is exceedingly rare. We carefully removed the foxes from the traps, sexed, weighed, measured, marked and released them.

"Very few researchers have actually had their hands on wild Rüppell's fox, so it was a memorable moment for us all." Marijcke Jongbloed, a Dutch naturalist and author who lived in the UAE for 20 years and who now lives in Rimons, France, might have had a similar memory, but for sleeping a little too soundly during a deep-dune camping trip in the Empty Quarter. When she did wake, "all around my tent, tiny foxy paw prints could be seen, right up to the place where my face had been".

Happily, she was compensated on the drive home, when she and a friend noticed two Rüppell's fox cubs barrelling across the sand from one burrow to the next. After a cautious approach on foot, to within about four metres, Dr Jongbloed settled in for the show. First she was rewarded with a view of the mother, followed by the cubs drifting off to sleep at the entrance to their den. Telling this as yet unpublished story, the author of several field guides to the UAE's plants, mammals and reptiles says: "Lying there in the hot sun on soft sand, watching baby foxes doze, I was as happy as I had ever been in my life."

But fox research does not always so readily show the animals' cute and cuddly side. In general, says Dr Murdoch, the wary mammals pose some real difficulties for researchers because, red foxes notwithstanding, they tend to "occur in low densities, live in harsh environments and are active mainly at night". Peter Cunningham also knows a thing or two about the trials of fox research. The ecologist, who now works at the King Khalid Wildlife Research Station in Thumamah, Saudi Arabia, lived in the UAE on and off for six years, including time as head of the mammal department at the BCEAW. Following the discovery of Blanford's fox in a Fujairah wadi, he initiated a field study of its distribution and diet based on fecal analysis. Somewhere along the line, he must have brought an errant finger to his face, because "I ended up with larvae in my eye".

"I had a hell of a time to get these things out," Mr Cunningham said, "and doctors would not believe me; they thought I was crazy, smirks and all, 'Yeah, sure, worms in your eye', etcetera. I had to eventually see an ophthalmologist in Dubai American hospital who assisted." In the end, "my wife and I removed 10 from my eye with a needle. Never again, thank you. One of the worst experiences of my life."

Other fox studies often rely on radio-telemetry to locate and follow fox movements, says Dr Murdoch, using a radiocollar on the animals and a receiver to fix their location. Some collars are even equipped with on-board GPS units, capable of regularly recording locations. Such studies provide information on the size of an animal's territory and its favoured habitats - and sometimes reveal distinct differences, even within the same species.

"For example," says Dr Murdoch, "studies in Oman and Saudi Arabia have formed the basis of our understanding of the spatial requirements of Rüppell's foxes. "In Oman, home ranges of some foxes were nearly 70 square kilometres, which is impressively large given that most foxes of similar size typically have ranges between five and 10 square kilometres." Study estimates from other areas have been closer to expectations, at between 10 and 16 square kilometres.

Researchers have other technology at their disposal; Dr Murdoch used a military grade night-vision scope to study the behaviour of the Kit fox, which lives in North America. "I was able to see all sorts of strange and unusual behaviours that had never been recorded in over 30 years of research," he says. Similar techniques have been used to document the foraging behaviour, activity patterns and habitat use of Blanford's fox.

While many fox species have been fairly well-studied, says Dr Murdoch, with the red fox probably the best represented, most of these studies have concerned urban and agricultural populations in the UK and Europe, "and few have focused on the species in Arabia or other desert regions where they lead very different lives". In the UAE, says Dr Murdoch, the abundance and distribution of the red fox is probably tied to human populations, which provide the animals with predictable sources of food and water.

By comparison, the Rüppell's fox, "a much more arid-adapted species", is a lot more self-sufficient and has less to gain from proximity to humans. "They are exceptional critters and have a number of interesting adaptations that allow them to deal with the extreme heat of the UAE deserts," he says. In addition to being mostly nocturnal, they use dens up to several metres deep and get all the water they need from prey and plant foods.

The more secretive an animal, the less that is likely to be known about it: "Rüppell's fox occur in several areas of UAE, but few details are known," says Dr Murdoch. "Sadly, the species appears to be declining in Arabia, according to recent assessments of their population status." While globally the species is thought to be stable and not in imminent danger, "they are listed as endangered in the UAE", where declines in populations, he says, "have been due to several factors, including habitat loss and alteration by humans, persecution, and even competition from red foxes".

On the other hand, Blanford's fox was originally classified globally as a threatened species, but following research that discovered new populations, the listing was revised to "least concern", the same IUCN red-list status accorded the red fox. Nevertheless, because of the species' strict reliance on steep, rocky, mountainous areas, habitat loss through disturbance, such as road-building and quarrying, remains a significant problem.

* The National