Fennec Foxes (and a Scottish Explorer)

Begging your collective indulgence for one more fox post, I want to showcase another title from the rich collections of the Salem Athenaeum that is a candidate for the annual Adopt-a-Book program:  James Bruce’s Select Specimens of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in Egypt, Arabia, Abyssinia, and Nubia, the last volume of his five-volume work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768-1773 (1790).  This book had me at hello when I laid eyes on just one of Bruce’s “select specimens”, a nocturnal Egyptian desert fox with very large ears called a “Fennec”.

Fennec from James Bruce Select Speciments of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Wow! You can’t get any cuter than this. I’m hardly the first person to be entranced by this desert fox; fennecs caught the eyes of several visitors to Africa after Bruce, including the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who based the wise fox character in The Little Prince (1943) on this particular species. I don’t remember noticing these ears in my childhood, but how could I have missed them?

Fennec Fox in Little Prince 1943

Fennec Foxes Tower by Joachim S. Muller

The Little Prince and the Fox, 1943; a “tower” of Fennec Foxes by photographer Joachim S. Müller.

I am so enraptured with the illustrations of the Fennec and other African animals in Bruce’s Select Specimens that the explorer himself has become the backstory for me. But the Scottish explorer and scientist James Bruce (1730-94) is very notable for being among the first modern European explorers of Africa and seekers of the source of the Nile, preceding the great Victorian expeditions by almost a century. He is generally credited with tracing the course of the Blue Nile, one of the Nile’s tributaries, and rediscovering and reintroducing Ethiopia to Europeans. Apparently his descriptions of African lands and life were viewed as so fantastic by his peers that his credibility was questioned, but his accounts were verified by later explorers. I just love his fauna, which he drew himself:  the bat-like fennec, the expected hyena and rhinoceros, a long-legged, long-tailed mouse called the “Jerboa”, a tail-less guinea pig-like creature called the “Ashkoko”, even his African insects and reptiles (though not the scary snake).

Bruce Rhinocerous croppped

Bruce Mouse Cropped

Bruce Ashkoko cropped

Bruce illustrations cropped

Illustrations from James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh: J. Ruthven, for G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1790.

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