House husbandry is foxy

A zoological interlude, in which we consider the domestic habits of the bat-eared fox.

Published May 16, 2006 6:37PM (EDT)

Nature fans should be interested in a new study on the (really very adorable) bat-eared foxes from central Kenya.

Bat-eared fox mom leaves the den every morning to snuffle up termites and make milk for her bat-eared fox offspring. Bat-eared fox père stays home and huddles with the cubs, keeping them warm, grooming them, protecting them from predators and occasionally fetching snacks for them. They are the modern bat-eared fox family, and according to a new study published in Animal Behaviour, the best predictor for number and proportion of cubs surviving to weaning age is paternal den attendance.

The stay-at-home-dad arrangement is pretty uncommon among animals, and it's helped along here by the fact that bat-eared foxes eat a lot of grubs, which are harder for a hunter-father to bring home in large quantities. It's more practical for a mother to head out, eat her fill, and return to provide sustenance to her cubs through her milk. But it takes a long time for a mama fox to eat enough termites, and someone has to stay with the babies. Then, as the babies get older, fox dads act as hunting chaperones, taking the cubs on foraging missions.

Other fox species that benefit from house husbandry include insect munchers like the hoary fox from South America and Blanford's fox from the Middle East.

The new study about the bat-eared foxes, according to the Discovery Channel, "suggests that male/female cooperation can benefit the young, particularly when parents are monogamous and dedicated to their duties."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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