At last we managed to get some photos of one of the pairs of Bat-eared Foxes with their four cubs. Initially we only spotted the four cubs, but they were later “herded” by mom and dad who led them in a fast run to safety from the prying human eyes! Although their Afrikaans names are Bakoorjakkals or Draaijakkals, they are not jackals. They actually belong to the canine family – the same as dogs. Draaijakkals describes how it runs as it twists and dodges and can turn quickly on its own track.
The name Bat-eared Fox originates from their large bat-like ears, which enhances their hearing but also serves to dissipate body heat. This species is small and jackal-like in appearance, with slender black legs and a black, pointed muzzle. A light-coloured or white band runs across the forehead to the base of the ears. The coat is silver-gray, and longish with a grizzled appearance. The tail is long and bushy, black on top and near the tip.
Their total body length varies between 75 and 90 cm; their height at shoulder is 35 cm and their weight ranges between 3 and 5 kg.
The jaws are not very strong and the teeth are small and weak, but they have lots of teeth (46 to 50) – more than any other mammal – with between 4 and 8 extra molars for grinding. Mastication (chewing) is very fast and prey is well chewed. A step-like protrusion, the subangular lobe, on the lower jaw anchors the large digastric muscle. This causes a quick chopping jaw action with very little side-to-side movement which allows them to chew 5 times per second! That makes them a perfect termite-mashing machine!
These foxes are widespread in western and central areas of the southern African subregion. It prefer areas of short grass or bare ground in open grassland or scattered shrubland.
They are active mainly at night (nocturnal) but are seen during the early morning or evening, normally avoiding the heat of the day by sheltering in thick shrub, tall grass areas or burrows. Our photos were taken over midday while they were out enjoying the winter sun after the rain and cold, playing and foraging in the newly sprouted wheat fields. These foxes are active diggers and will excavate their own burrows, but often modifies those dug by another species. Although normally silent, they communicate with soft contact calls, whines and chirps and a loud bark when alarmed.
Bat-eared Foxes locate their prey primarily by hearing. While foraging they stop periodically with head cocked and ears pointing to the ground, listening for the sounds of grubs and termites below the surface. Then they leap forward and dig shallow holes with their forepaws. The claws on the forefeet are long and ideal for digging in even the hardest soil. An insect-eater, they are the only carnivore to have largely given up eating mammalian prey. They cannot tackle big prey.
A large part of their diet consists of termites and dung beetles; other prey include insects, millipedes and centipedes, scorpions, spiders, fruits, eggs, snakes, lizards, frogs, occasional small mammals, birds and soft tubers and roots.
Pairs mate for life (monogamous), and family groups consist of parents and their offspring. Different family groups may mix together when feeding. The gestation period is about 50 days; litters of two to five cubs are born in underground dens from October to January, dispersing in June or July.
Predators occasionally include large raptors and caracal and they succumb to diseases such as rabies and distemper. Their resemblance to jackal leads to conflict with stock farmers who falsely accused of them of killing livestock and regard them as vermin. They also become victims of traps set for problem animals and large numbers are killed on the roads. Currently the species is not regarded as threatened but there is the future threat of loss of suitable habitat due to human activities, building, farming, etc.