The fennec fox is a standout among fox species. It is native to the Sahara Desert of northern Africa and can be found as far east as Kuwait. This species is uniquely adapted for life in a harsh desert setting, from its small size to its enormous ears. Meet this much-loved fox species and learn about how it thrives in one of the planet's harshest environments.

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World's smallest fox species

The fennec fox is uniquely built to thrive in the desert.The fennec fox is uniquely built to thrive in the desert. (Photo: Cat Downie/Shutterstock)

Fox species are often compared in size to house cats. But not the fennec fox. This species weighs just 1.5-3.5 pounds and stands only 8 inches tall. That's shorter than the average house cat and a fraction of the weight. If you're going to make a felid comparison, you'll have to refer to kittens! It holds the title of world's smallest fox species. It also holds the title of having the largest ears in proportion to body size, even beating out the bat-eared fox.

Don't let the dainty size fool you, though. This little fox can jump two feet high and four feet forward when springing into action to catch prey or evade a predator. They are tough to catch which means they have few predators; the eagle owl (and of course humans) is its only main threat.

Multi-purpose ears

The fennec fox's ears are its signature trait. The fennec fox's ears are its signature trait. (Photo: Cat Downie/Shutterstock)

The most notable trait of the fennec fox is of course its little button nose. Right? OK fine, everyone just has to talk about its ears.

The 6-inch long ears are indeed a great tool for listening in on prey. The foxes tilt their heads from side to side while triangulating sound so that they can pinpoint the exact location of insects, rodents, reptiles and other tasty treats, which are often hiding just under the sand.

These oversized ears are for more than just listening. The ears also serve as a way to dissipate heat and keep cool in the desert heat. This is one of many adaptations the fox has for its harsh habitat.

Extra furry feet

The fennec fox's paws are covered in thick fur to protect it from hot sand. The fennec fox's paws are covered in thick fur to protect it from hot sand. (Photo: Lodimup/Shutterstock)

A desert is a tough environment because of the extreme temperature variations. A fox needs plenty of fur to stay warm on nights when the temperature plummets below zero. But that fur also protects the animal from the heat. The fennec fox has extra furry feet, which protects its paw pads from the hot sand. The thick fur also gives the fox extra traction when maneuvering across loose sand and dunes.

A dedicated family life

Fennec fox parents are devoted to their pups. Fennec fox parents are devoted to their pups. (Photo: Alphotographic/iStock)

Fennec foxes mate for life. A couple produces one litter of 2-5 pups per year, and the offspring from one litter may stay with the family even as the next litter of pups is born. When the female is pregnant and nursing the pups, her mate will bring her food and also acts highly protective of her.

Pups are not weaned until they are 2-2.5 months old, and reach maturity at around 9 months old. Though they grow up quickly, fennec foxes may live up to 10 years in the wild, and can live up to 14 years in captivity.

Leading a social life

Naps are always more fun with friends. Naps are always more fun with friends. (Photo: Narit Jindajamorn/Shutterstock)

Fennec fox behavior is known mainly through what we see of the foxes in captivity. But what we see in captivity is that they are highly social animals, enjoying the company of other foxes and engaging in play even as adults. Fennec foxes live in groups of as many as 10 individuals, though the size of the group is mostly determined by the amount of food resources available in a territory. .

Never needs water

Fennec foxes are opportunistic eaters. Fennec foxes are opportunistic eaters. (Photo: Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock)

The fennec fox is so well adapted to desert life that it can live without free-standing water. Instead, fennec foxes gain much of their water from the leaves, roots, fruits, eggs and animal prey they find to eat. They also can lap up condensation that collects in their dens.

Loving the night life

Fennec foxes are nocturnal, snoozing during the day. Fennec foxes are nocturnal, snoozing during the day. (Photo: shiroshiro/Shutterstock)

Like so many desert-dwelling animals, fennec foxes are nocturnal. This keeps them out of the worst heat of the day, though it has its own challenges for staying warm on cold nights and of course locating prey in the dark. But then again, ears!

Because they're nocturnal, if you visit fennec foxes in a zoo you'll probably only see them as they snooze (adorably, of course), storing up energy for another crazy night of hunting and play.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.