Baby Fennec Fox at the San Diego Zoo

A three-month-old fennec fox is full of energy and ready to play in the Children's Zoo Nursery at the San Diego Zoo. The young male, who weighs just 1.5 pounds, is in quarantine before training to serve as an animal ambassador for his species.

The nocturnal fox pup has spurts of energy, so animal care staff have been giving him lots of toys and food puzzles to help keep him busy. For example, meal worms are hidden in cardboard boxes or in his sand mound, which encourages the fox to use some of his natural searching and digging behaviors. The fox's favorite toys to play with are small, plush toy mice.

"Fennec foxes are great hunters, and in order to foster those natural behaviors, we will give him some stuffed mice that he'll toss around and pounce on as if he's practicing hunting," said Becky Kier, senior Neonatal Assisted Care Unit keeper at the San Diego Zoo. "In the wild he would normally dig for insects in the sand, so we provide him with something to dig through to encourage that behavior as well."

The fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is a small nocturnal fox found in the Sahara of North Africa. Its most distinctive feature is unusually large ears. The name “fennec” comes from the Arabic word for fox, and the species name zerda has a Greek origin that refers to its habitat. The fennec is the smallest species of canid in the world; coat, ears and kidney functions have adapted to a high-temperature, low-water, desert environment. In addition, its hearing is sensitive enough to hear prey moving underground.

The fennec has a life span of up to 12 years in the wild; its main predators include the caracal and the African varieties of eagle owl. Families of fennecs dig out dens in sand for habitation and protection, which can be as large as 120 m2 (1,292 sq ft) and adjoin the dens of other families. Precise population figures are not known but are estimated from the frequency of sightings; these indicate that the animal is currently not threatened by extinction.

Knowledge of social interactions is limited to information gathered from captive animals. The species is usually assigned to the genus Vulpes; however, this is debated due to differences between the fennec fox and other fox species. The fennec's fur is prized by the indigenous peoples of North Africa, and in some parts of the world, the animal is considered an exotic pet.