They don’t quite have the same name recognition as giant pandas or Bengal tigers.

But that doesn’t mean San Joaquin kit foxes are any less endangered.

“We don’t have a really good estimate, there may be as many as 3,000, which is not that many,” Stanislaus State research ecologist Brian Cypher said of the San Joaquin kit fox, which is found only in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “That’s as many as there are giant pandas left in the world. That’s throughout the entire range.”

Cypher and his team at the Endangered Species Recovery Program now have some new funding, however, to help give the San Joaquin kit foxes a fighting chance against a recent threat. The Morris Animal Foundation recently awarded the team a two-year grant worth more than $100,000 to help study and treat sarcoptic mange, a fatal disease caused by mites that burrow into the foxes’ skin.

“Even though they’re very small, they’re considered a top predator in these environments,” Cypher said. “They help control certain populations of rodents … We don’t know how those populations might get out of whack if kit foxes were to disappear."

Cypher says San Joaquin kit foxes typically make their home in dry, desert scrubland. An adult pair of kit foxes and their young require roughly two square miles. The nocturnal animals spend their days underground in earthen dens, coming out at night to hunt for kangaroo rats and pocket mice.

Some San Joaquin kit foxes have adapted themselves to life in urban areas like Coalinga and Bakersfield, where Cypher and his team are based.

The Morris Animal Foundation grant will allow the researchers to study how kit fox density in certain areas affects the spread of sarcoptic mange, as well as help them to trap and treat the kit foxes for their mange. If untreated, Cypher says sarcoptic mange typically kills kit foxes in three to four months, as foxes scratch and bite their skin, creating infected wounds.

“To me it’s important to have them around,” Cypher said. “They’re part of their natural ecosystem here.”