You remember the spectacular rock climb at Half Dome a few weeks ago? In a more remote part of California’s Yosemite National Park, a motion-sensitive camera placed by Forest Service wildlife biologists has twice recorded another unusual phenomenon. A rare Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes nectar) was sighted in the back country near Sonora Pass on December 13,2014, and January 4 of this year.
DNA analysis of the Yosemite rare fox’s saliva left on a bait bag of chicken scraps confirmed the visual analysis. The scientists do not know if the sightings were the same animal, or two different ones.
This type of red fox has not been seen in Yosemite for almost 100 years. Fewer than 50 of them are known to exist in North America. The subspecies has state protection. One of the park rangers, Kari Cobb, saw one several years ago north of the park.
Cobb and Jeremy Hobson, host of Here & Now, public radio’s live midday news program, discuss the Yosemite rare fox on this audio interview.
Professor Ben Sacks, a wildlife genetics researcher at the University of California, Davis, who runs the university’s Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit, joins them with a few professional observations. Says Sachs about the sightings:
“This is the most exciting animal discovery we have had in California since the wolverine in the Sierra two years ago—only this time, the unexpected critter turned out to be home-grown, which is truly big news.”
The wolverine was merely a visitor. The fox(es) seen recently may be distant cousins of the Eastern red fox (V.v. fulva), which settlers brought to California in the 1860s for hunting and fur farms, but they are a true native California subspecies. Along with Rocky Mountain and Cascade red foxes (V.v. macroura and V. v. cascadensis) and the Sacramento Valley red fox (V. v. patin) Dr. Sacks is holding in the photograph, they formed a single large western population until the end of the last ice age. At that time, the three mountain subspecies followed receding glaciers up to mountaintops, leaving the Sacramento Valley red fox isolated at a lower elevation.
The UC Davis research group started out observing only canids, but now its primary mission is research that advances the persistence of wild mammal biodiversity as well as basic understanding of mammal evolution and ecology. Here’s how Sachs describes his work: “Much of my research is motivated by curiosity about the relationships between individual behavior and population-level processes, including the historical roles played by behavioral plasticity and adaptation in the evolution of niche specialization. I am especially interested in research that directly or indirectly helps us conserve endangered canid populations and species.”