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Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle


  • Primarily nocturnal; use dens during the day (Coetzee 1977; Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Cannot tolerate exposure to highest daytime desert temperatures (Bueler 1973; Noll-Banholzer 1979a; Geffen and Girard 2003)
  • Peak activity period: 19:00 to 05:00 (Gauthier-Pilters 1967; Karssene, Chammem, et al. 2019)
    • Very active after dusk
    • Also active before sunrise
  • In some locations (e.g., southern Morocco), may be active until mid-morning during winter (Asa et al. 2004)



  • Dens dug in sand, open areas, or places sheltered by certain plants (Dragesco-Joffe 1993 and Incorvaia 2005, as cited by Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Soft sand required for digging
  • Located in low areas (e.g., base of dunes), where moisture collects (Gauthier-Pilters 1967; Castelló 2018)
    • Keeps den cool


  • Maximum internal temperature: 34°C (93°F) (Noll-Banholzer 1979a)


  • In compact soils, den structure large and maze-like (Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Cover an area up to 120 m2 (1300 ft2) (Dragesco-Joffe 1993, as cited by Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Up to 15 different entrances (Dragesco-Joffe 1993, as cited by Asa and Cuzin 2013)
  • In soft sand, den structure usually small and simple (Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • 1 entrance, 1 tunnel leading to chamber (Dragesco-Joffe 1993, as cited by Asa and Cuzin 2013)
  • May reach 1 m (3 ft deep) (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)
  • Dens may be close together or interconnected (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)

Movements and Dispersal

Home range

  • Movements and home range unknown (Sillero-Zubiri 2009a)

Social Behavior

Social structure

  • Live in a small group (Bekoff et al. 1981)
    • Basic social unit comprised of mated pair and their offspring (Coetzee 1977; Sillero-Zubiri 2009a; Asa and Cuzin 2013)
      • Young of previous year may remain with family group (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)
  • Considered moderately social (Asa et al. 2004)
    • May share den with up to 10 to 12 other individuals (Dorst and Dandelot 1972; Castelló 2018)
  • Managed care
    • Often social in managed care settings (Asa et al. 2004)
      • Rest in contact with one another
    • Individuals may show stronger patterns of affiliation and physical contact than in the wild (Asa and Cuzin 2013)



  • Wide variety of calls (Gauthier-Pilters 1967, and as noted)
    • Barks: high and low pitched (Harrison 1968)
    • “Cat-like purr”
    • Yapping, if perceive a threat
    • “Squeaking” during greeting display
  • In the wild, distinct high-pitched call (ti ti ti) during breeding (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)

Visual communication

  • Tail-wagging (Larivière 2002)
  • Greeting displays (Larivière 2002)
    • Greet another fennec fox or human keeper
  • Facial expressions (Larivière 2002)

Agonistic Behavior and Defense


  • Above ground
    • Fast moving; outrun potential predators (Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Can change direction very quickly (Monteil 1951, as cited by Asa and Cuzin 2013)
  • Underground
    • Hide or flee from den (Asa and Cuzin 2013)
      • Higher risk of capture if simple structure
      • Also see Dens


  • Threat display behavior (managed care) (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)
    • Back arched
    • Ears angled back
    • Hairs at base of tail bristled
    • Scratching with feet
  • In managed care, both sexes more aggressive when females in estrus (lasts about 2 days) (Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Male aggressive to intruders in territory, including keepers (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)
    • Males urinate on objects (Gauthier-Pilters 1962; Gauthier-Pilters 1967)

Territorial Behavior

Territory marking

  • Males more territorial during breeding (Gauthier-Pilters 1962)
    •  Urinate on objects when females in estrus

Other Behaviors

Play behavior

  • Social and solitary play common, even in adulthood (e.g., Gauthier-Pilters 1962; Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Play with each other, objects, and prey (Gauthier-Pilters 1967; Rosevear 1974)
      • Bite and roll over playmates
      • Shake objects, as though killing prey
      • Chase each other
      • Play with food

Burial of feces

  • Cover feces with sand, probably to avoid detection by predators (Gauthier-Pilters 1962; Asa and Cuzin 2013)
    • Dig shallow hole, then use hind legs or nose to cover feces/urine


  • Lick forepaws to groom head, like a cat (Rosevear 1974)
  • Hind feet used to clean inside ears (Rosevear 1974)

Ecological Role

Role as desert predator

  • Likely a top predator in regions where no large predators occur (Fleming et al. 2017)
  • Mid-level predator where habitat use overlaps with larger predators (Fleming et al. 2017)

Interspecies Interactions

Competition for resources

  • In Tunisia, does not appear to compete with red fox (Vulpes vulpes) or African golden wolf (Canis anthus) (Karssene, Chammem, et al. 2019)
    • Eat similar prey but occupy separate habitats
      • Fennec fox uses habitat areas not suitable for red fox and African golden wolf
  • Unclear if compete with Rüppell’s fox (Vulpes rueppellii) and golden jackal, Canis aureus (Asa et al. 2004; Asa and Cuzin 2013; Wacher et al. 2015)
    • In one reserve, Burruss (2014) found that fennec fox and Rüppell’s fox live in same areas

Relationship with humans

  • In Morocco, young foxes captured for sale to tourists, photo exhibition, and for meat (Schmidt-Nielsen 1979, as cited by Asa and Cuzin 2013; Schmidt-Nielsen 1979)
  • Adults captured for fur (Asa and Cuzin 2013; Wacher et al. 2015)
  • Housed in accredited zoos as well as private collections in the Middle East (Wacher et al. 2015)
  • Bred privately in the United States (Wacher et al. 2015)
    • Sometimes kept as pets



  • Quick and agile (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)


  • Capable jumpers and climbers (Bueler 1973)
    • Can leap horizontally about 1.2 m (4 ft)
    • Can leap vertically at least 0.6 m (2 ft)


  • Burrow quickly (Rosevear 1974)
  • Use front feet to push sand between spread hind feet (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)
  • To enlarge den, lay on side and scratch at sidewalls (Gauthier-Pilters 1967)

Desert Extremes

Fennec fox laying on log

Fennec foxes are primarily nocturnal, using dens during the day to avoid hot desert temperatures.

Even with thick fur, this species is sensitive to cold because of their small body size.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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