Cape fox (Vulpes chama)

Also known as: Silver fox, Silver jackal
  
French: Le Renaud Du Cap
Spanish: Zorro Chama, Zorro Del Cabo
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCarnivora
FamilyCanidae
GenusVulpes (1)
SizeMale average head-body length: 55.4 cm (2)
Female average head-body length: 55.3 cm (2)
Male average tail length: 34.8 cm (2)
Female average tail length: 33.8 cm (2)
Male average weight: 2.8 kg (2)
Female average weight: 2.5 kg (2)

The Cape fox is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The smallest and only 'true fox' found in southern Africa, the Cape fox (Vulpes chama) is sometimes known as the ‘silver fox’ or ‘silver jackal’ due to the flecking of silver-grey fur on its upper body (2). The term 'true fox' refers to a group of related fox species which are characterised by a pointed muzzle, distinctive triangular ears, a tail often tipped with a different fur colour and a flatter skull in comparison to fellow members of the Canidae family (3).

The Cape fox has a rather slender body, and the female fox is typically around five percent smaller than the male. Dense wavy hairs make up the underfur, on top of which is a thick coat of black guard hairs with light, silver-banded bases. Long, black sensory hairs are also scattered throughout the Cape fox’s coat (2).

The fur covering the face, chest, neck and limbs of the Cape fox is much lighter, ranging from pale reddish-brown to tawny-brown or almost white. There are distinctive dark patches on the backs of the thighs and a dark, narrow strip at the tip of the muzzle, as well as triangular face markings between the eyes and nose. The face of the Cape fox has freckles of white hairs, with highly concentrated patches on the cheeks (2).

Facial expressions and tail position play an important role in social interactions. The long, bushy tail of the Cape fox appears from a distance to be wholly black and much darker than the rest of the body; however, upon close examination, the hairs have a buffy-white base and a darker tip. This species also has particularly large reddish-brown ears fringed with fine, white hairs. The size of the ears, along with an enhanced auditory system, allows the Cape fox to readily detect potential predators and prey. (2).

The Cape fox’s primary vocalisation is a high-pitched howl, ending in sharp bark. The female fox, known as a vixen, may bark at potential predators when caring for young pups (2).

The Cape fox is found only in southern Africa. It is fairly widespread in the central and western regions of South Africa, and its range extends north into Botswana, Namibia and south-western Angola (1) (2).

In recent decades the Cape fox’s range has expanded southwest, towards the coastlines of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean (2). Its range has also extended into the eastern areas of the Cape Province in South Africa (1) (2).

Mainly associated with open country, the Cape fox is often found in grassland and coastal or semi-desert scrubland (1). The grasslands typically surround shallow seasonal ‘pans’ which hold water during the wet season, and are sometimes scattered with thickets of vegetation or lightly wooded areas (2). In some areas, the Cape fox occupies areas with rocky outcrops, low ridges and flat gravel plains (1).

This species has been shown to flourish in areas receiving minimal rainfall. Despite its preference for arid and semi-arid areas, the Cape fox is also known to venture into areas with denser vegetation and higher rainfall, such as the fynbos in western South Africa (2).

The Cape fox is increasingly able to survive in areas of extensive agricultural land, typically retreating to remaining pockets of natural vegetation, burrows or crevices among rock scree during the day and foraging on the cleared, cultivated fields by night (2).

The Cape fox is a generalist predator that may scavenge for food in addition to eating a wide variety of live prey, as well as wild fruits and vegetables. Small rodents are the most important mammal prey of the Cape fox, while invertebrates such as beetles and grasshoppers also form a large part of its diet. Other less common food choices include birds, reptiles and even larger mammal prey such as hares. This variation in diet appears to be dictated by seasonal changes and availability of prey types. The Cape fox may store its food when prey supplies are plentiful (2).  

Rather than being a co-operative hunter and scavenger like other members of the Canidae family, the Cape fox is a solitary, nocturnal forager. However, in areas where food sources are abundant, group foraging may occasionally occur when the home ranges of individuals overlap (2).

The Cape fox forms monogamous pair bonds. Gestation lasts for 52 days, with most births taking place in August and September in the west of South Africa, and August to October in the east. The litter size of the Cape fox is similar throughout its range, typically averaging three pups, although some litters may contain up to six pups (2).

Young Cape foxes are born and raised in dens that are burrowed in sandy soil, or occasionally in dense vegetation and cavities among rocks. Although both adult Cape foxes will feed and defend the pups, the female provides the majority of care to the young. At 16 weeks old the pups are capable of starting to hunt alone, and by 5 months the young foxes are completely independent (2).

In the past, the Cape fox has been a major target of both hunting clubs and farmers in southern Africa. A correlation between lamb predation and Cape fox abundance has been documented, but could be the result of the Cape fox scavenging on carcasses rather than directly killing the lambs (2).

The Cape fox is also killed indirectly, sometimes becoming a victim of control activities such as leg-hold traps, poison and dog packs that are targeted primarily at the black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) and the caracal (Caracal caracal) (2). Such animal control measures have resulted in population declines in certain areas, but fortunately this has not had a major impact on the overall population of the Cape fox (1).

The threat to the Cape fox from disease and pathogens is largely unknown. Cape foxes are susceptible to rabies, but this threat is not as great as in other canids (2).

Habitat loss and fragmentation as a result of human activity are common threats to many medium-sized African carnivores (4). However, they are not currently thought to be a significant threat to the Cape fox (1). In fact, increasing agriculture and desertification in southern Africa have led to an extension of this species’ range as it creates more suitable habitats for this small fox (1) (2).  

No known protection measures are currently in place for the Cape fox, but it occurs in many nature reserves and game ranches throughout its range (1) (2). This species is still treated as a ‘problem’ animal in many areas, but it is partially protected in several South African provinces (1).

Although no specific protection measures currently exist for the Cape fox, it is not presently considered threatened and therefore conservation action is not yet considered necessary (1).

Find out more about the Cape fox:

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  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Sillero-Zubiri, C., Hoffmann, M. and Macdonald, D.W. (2004) Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://www.carnivoreconservation.org/files/actionplans/canids.pdf
  3. Wilson, D.E. and Reeder, D.M. (2005) Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  4. Kauffman, M.J., Sanjayan, M., Lowenstein, J., Nelson, A., Jeo, R.M. and Crooks, R. (2007) Remote camera-trap methods and analyses reveal impacts of rangeland management on Namibian carnivore communities. Oryx, 41: 70-78.