(Editor’s note: Lynette Lyons is an animal education specialist who makes countless presentations in area schools while hand-raising a variety of exotic wildlife. She has appeared on national television programs with several of her animal friends.)

The smallest species of canine in the world happens to inhabit one of the harshest environments on the planet. The fennec fox is a highly specialized member of the dog family that is found in the Sahara desert in Africa.

Over thousands of years, the fennec has developed multiple adaptations to allow it to live in a region that reaches extreme temperatures ranging from 130 degrees to 30 degrees within a 24-hour period.

The most prominent of the adaptations are the fennec fox’s disproportionally large ears. Each ear contains more blood vessels per square inch than any other part of their bodies, allowing body heat to radiate and help keep them cool. Additionally, the size of the ears allows the foxes to hear prey up to three feet underneath the desert sand.

Despite their small stature, the fennec is one of the most successful hunters in North Africa. Reaching only two-and-a-half pounds, their small size is actually a big advantage when it comes to hunting swift and evasive prey, allowing them to approach potential food virtually unheard.

Fennec foxes are capable of reaching speeds of 28 mph and of jumping two-and-a-half feet straight up. These athletic accomplishments aid them in capturing food such as mice, spiders, scorpions, snakes, lizards, birds and bats.

Fennecs are one of the most popular ambassador animals found in zoos today. Their size, intelligence and disposition make them ideal for use in education. Since most of the fennecs born in zoos will be used as ambassadors, it’s important for the babies to be raised by humans and exposed to the public as early as possible.

A brand new fennec was born at a local zoo facility recently and is currently being hand-raised near Sonoma. She will eventually serve as representative for her species as well.

Using fennec foxes for outreach programs allows educators to bring the plight of other, more endangered species, out in the open.