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The Bat-Eared Fox – Did You Ever See a Fox Fly?

Saturday 26 May 2018

Around 800,000 years ago a species developed on the African Savannah, a canid but quite unlike any other. It was small – with a head and body length of only around 55 cm, tawny furred and with black ears. It is the ears which really make this mostly nocturnal animal stand out.  On average they are a staggering 14 centimeters in length.  Proportionally they may not be as large as Dumbo’s but this is no fictional appendage. These ears are for real.

The ears are a special adaptation.  Although the Bat-Eared Fox (Otocyon megalotis) will eat rodents, birds and eggs with the occasional fruit, it eats something quite unexpected.  Over eighty percent of its diet is made up of insects, especially termites.  The powerful ears are able to pick up the sound of termites within their nests.

It will also follow swarms of locusts and feast on their over-abundance during certain parts of the year.  Bat-Eared Foxes are often seen following herds of antelopes and zebras, which seem particularly nonchalant about the presence of this member of the dog family with teeth and claws.  That is because the BEF (as we will call it from here on in) is not pursuing them in a hunt.

They want a meal, certainly, but larger mammals are definitely not on the menu of the BEF. Instead the BEF is much more interested in the excrement of the antelopes and zebras.  Insects will often land on this in order to lay their eggs and it is these insects that the BEF is after. To us is may not seem particularly savoury but the BEF really couldn’t care less.

A question often asked about the BEF is how do they take the insects back to the den for the pups to feed?  The answer is that they do not.  Although they do take smaller animals such as lizards to the den the pups heavily rely on their mother’s milk until they are old enough to forage for insects themselves.

Although it is not clear if they mate for life, the BEF will be monogamous and when they do not live simply as a couple they can be in an extended family unit of up to fifteen individuals.  Once the pups are born the male will look after the den.  This is so that the mother can go out and forage for insects in order to produce enough milk for the voracious pups.

So, unlike the foxes of Western Europe, this variety (extremely distantly related) likes the company of others of its own species.  It is highly gregarious and will forage as a group, rarely moving more than two hundred meters of so away from another individual.  This is not only to deter and protect against their predators.  It also means that they can concentrate on often time dependant insect patches and move on to another as a group.

They do have a few enemies, to say the least.  Black backed jackals are their main adversary and these will often deliberately hunt down the BEF as a target species and not opportunistically.  Other animals which are known to make a meal out of the BEF are lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyenas – so there are plenty of animals on the savannah about which the BEF must be wary.

They have another enemy too – us of course.  They are persecuted often because of the mistaken belief that they prey on small mammalian livestock. They are also hunted for their pelts in Botswana.  This is despite the fact that they have been proven to be an important and efficient predator of harvest termites which are considered a pest in Botswana.

It is not known how many BEFs are left in the wild, but the two separate populations do, it is agreed, seem to be shrinking as humans make inroads in to areas of land which were previously not populated. So, although things are not too bleak for the Bat-Eared Fox, neither is its future on the grasslands of southern Africa guaranteed.

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