Without context, the trail cam photo above could easily be mistaken for being nothing more than a lovely image of a red fox. But for researchers at Yosemite National Park, it's a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. 

The fox in question just happens to be the Sierra Nevada red fox, one of the most endangered species in North America. Once heavily hunted by fur trappers in the early 20th century, no more than 50 of the red foxes are believed to exist. The confirmed sighting, captured by a remote motion-sensitive camera, marks the first time in 100 years the red fox has been seen within Yosemite. 

"We are thrilled to hear about the sighting of the Sierra Nevada red fox, one of the most rare and elusive animals in the Sierra Nevada,” said Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park superintendent. “National parks like Yosemite provide habitat for all wildlife, and it is encouraging to see that the red fox was sighted in the park.”

Because of their small numbers, little is known about the foxes. What scientists do know indicates that the creatures prefer high-elevations and subsists on a diet of small mammals, birds, and insects. 

The fox was discovered by scientists participating in Yosemite's "Carnivore Crew," which routinely surveys off-trail and remote areas within the 747,000-acre park. A recent five-day backcountry trip to the northern part of the park retrieved cameras that documented the presence of the red fox on Dec. 13, 2014 and Jan. 4, 2015. Previously confirmed sightings outside of the park have been documented in Sonora Pass region, where other scientists are monitoring a small population of the species. 

“Confirmation of the Sierra Nevada red fox in Yosemite National Park’s vast alpine wilderness provides an opportunity to join research partners in helping to protect this imperiled animal,” Sarah Stock, wildlife biologist in Yosemite National Park, said in a statement. “We’re excited to work across our boundary to join efforts with other researchers that will ultimately give these foxes the best chances for recovery.”

Park officials say they will continue to survey for the Sierra Nevada red fox using more remote cameras and hair snares for genetic analysis. 

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Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Extremely rare Sierra Nevada red fox spotted in Yosemite
Sighting marks the first time in over 100 years that the elusive and endangered animal has been seen within the park's boundaries.