Foxes and Feces: How Science Saves Species

Without ever laying eyes on a San Joaquin kit fox, scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics (CCG) know how many of the cute creatures live in California’s Ciervo-Panoche Natural Area. By studying the scat these stealthy animals leave behind, current and former CCG scientists Tammy Wilbert, Deborah Smith-Woollett, Jesus Maldonado, Katherine Ralls and their colleagues are helping local land managers map the places where these endangered animals live. Their paper, entitled “Distribution, fine-scale subdivision, and population size of San Joaquin kit foxes in the Ciervo-Panoche Natural Area, California,” was published Feb. 11 in the journal Conservation Genetics. In this Q&A, they talk about their findings.  

Why study kit foxes?

While people who are familiar with Ciervo-Panoche Natural Area had reported sightings of the endangered San Joaquin kit foxes, nobody really had an idea of how many were there or how large their range was. Knowing this information can be very helpful for our colleagues who manage the area and play a critical role in the conservation of this endangered species.

The Center for Conservation Genomics’ lab has successfully used scat samples to extract DNA and identify individual animals—including kit foxes—for more than 20 years. Dr. Mike Westphal from the Bureau of Land Management contacted us to see if we could apply the non-invasive techniques we developed to study the San Joaquin kit foxes that live in the Ciervo-Panoche Natural Area.