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What Big Ears You Have! : Serengeti’s Bat-eared Fox

Updated: Feb 6, 2018

Michael Hutchins on July 27, 2017

A young bat-eared fox in the Serengeti grasslands. Photo by Michael Hutchins

One of my favorite mammals in the Serengeti ecosystem is the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis).  This small denizen of the East African savannah is named for its ultra-large ears, which dominate the top of its head. Its adult tawny brown coloration with black legs and tail are perfect camouflage in tall dry grass.

The bat-eared fox occurs primarily in short grassland habitat; it prefers areas where the grass is kept short by grazing ungulates.  It hunts in these short grass habitats, but will venture into tall grass to hide from larger predators then threatened.

This species has an unusual diet, which consists of some 80-90 percent of harvester termites (Hodotermes mossambicus). When this termite is unavailable, the foxes will feed on other termites as well and have also been seen foraging on ants, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and other small insects.  Being a carnivore, however, it will eat small mammals and reptiles opportunistically.

A young bat-eared fox foraging. Photo by Michael Hutchins

Bat-eared foxes tend to hunt in groups, mostly in pairs or groups of three. Prey is located primarily through hearing, thus the large ears.  Foraging patterns vary with season and termite availability. While foraging is primarily diurnal during the part of the year, at other times, it is nocturnal, continuing throughout the night. Since food resources are clumped (termite mounds), this species is not territorial and does not fight each other over food.  In the Serengeti, the subspecies (O. m. virgatus) is primarily nocturnal (85 percent of the time), but can be sometimes seen during the day.

A small group of bat-eared foxes huddles together for warmth near their den in the cool early morning. Photo by Michael Hutchins.

Bat-eared foxes are highly social, often living in pairs or small groups of up to 15 individuals. Individuals forage, play and rest together as a group and their group vigilance aids in protection against predators. The slightest hint of danger will send the animals scurrying into the tall grass or the safety of a den.  Social grooming (licking and biting of the fur of another) occurs throughout the year and has the dual purpose of keeping inaccessible areas clean and cementing social bonds.

When it comes to reproduction, bat-eared foxes are primarily monogamous, although it has been observed in polygynous groups.  Unlike other foxes, it is the male that assumes most of the parental duties.  Gestation lasts for 60-70 days and litters generally consist of 1-6 kits.  Lactation lasts from 14-15 weeks, but males do the lion’s share of grooming, defending, huddling, watching, and transporting the young between den sites. Indeed, male care and den attendance are correlated with kit survival.

Females spend a majority of their time foraging for food, which is used for milk production on which the kits depend for their early nutrition.  Food brought back to the den by adults is not regurgitated for the kits as it is in other canids. Young bat-eared foxes leave their family groups at around 5-6 months of age and reach full sexual maturity early at about 8-9 months.

Looking a bit like Yoda of Star Wars fame, this young bat-eared fox sits on the edge of a road near tall grass soaking wet from dew. Photo by Michael Hutchins.

Bat-eared foxes have no immediate conservation  threats and are common in the Serengeti.  Let World Safaris show you the natural wonders of Africa.

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