Desert dogs and foxes
Two members of the dog group that survive in varied habitats, including dry
grassland and scrubby semidesert, are the coyote (Canis latrans) and the dingo
Atlas of the world’s deserts 170
(Canis dingo) of Southeast Asia and Australasia. The latter is tawny yellow in
color and can hardly bark, only howl. Sometimes regarded as a subspecies or
breed of domestic dog (Canis
A family of dingoes sleeps in the sun in the Australian outback.
The family group is the basic unit of the dingo’s social
familiaris), it may have accompanied the first human settlers to reach Australia,
some 40,000 years ago, perhaps as a part-domesticated companion for hunting
and protection. Since then dingoes have become semiwild or wild and live in
bush and semidesert regions, in family groups. They prey mainly on rabbits,
wallabies, small birds, lizards, and snakes, but have sometimes come into
conflict with ranchers due to their occasional sheep-stealing habits.
The coyote’s mournful howl echoes through the night in the arid, scrubby
southwest of North America and across most of the rest of the continent as well.
In dry regions, where prey is small and sparse—such as ground squirrels,
rabbits, and mice—these dogs tend to live alone or in pairs. In woodlands, where
meat is more plentiful, they may form larger packs. Like the dingo and many
other predators, the pressure of persecution has driven coyotes farther into drier
Creatures of the desert 171
areas, where they receive less human attention.
Two species of foxes that are both suited to desert life are the kit fox (Vulpes
macrotis) of North America and the fennec fox (Vulpes zerda or Fennecus
zerda) of North Africa, including the deep Sahara. Both species have huge ears,
both to hear their prey in the desert night and to work like radiators and rid the
body of excess internal heat. The fennec is the smallest of all foxes, only 60
centimeters (23 in.) from nose to tail, but its ears may be 15 centimeters (6 in.)
tall. It hides in a burrow by day and emerges at dusk to hunt small prey such as
mice and beetles. The kit fox is slightly larger and preys on rabbits, hares, and
A much smaller but equally fierce hunter of the American Southwest is the
ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), a weasel-like member of the racoon family with a
bushy, ringed tail. It climbs well, frequents rocky areas, and hunts alone at night
for insects, mice, small birds, and similar prey. However, it is an opportunist and
also feasts on fruits, buds, and other plant matter.