Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Hairless Gray Fox = Piedmont Odd Animal from 2006
Professor identifies mystery creature
By Tom Steadman

The odd-looking animal spotted in several Piedmont counties last year evidently was a hairless gray fox. That's the conclusion of Jaap Hillenius. He examined the carcass of a similar animal that had been hit by a car in the Charleston, S.C., area.

So it wasn't an exotic cross-species, though some central North Carolina residents who spotted the animals had reported it having the head of a cat and the body of a canine.

Just a fox sans hair because of a mutant gene, said Hillenius, associate professor in the biology department at College of Charleston. "That's the best we can think of," he said.

"There was no obvious reason for hair loss — no mange or malnutrition. It was normal except it didn't have hair follicles in the skin. "Hillenius sent part of the carcass' tongue to a UCLA lab, which confirmed it was a fox, he said. His findings were presented last weekend at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston. "It had been seen in the area, and people were so interested in it," Hillenius said.

Three years ago, interest was high in the Piedmont. Sightings of similar creatures were reported in Guilford and Randolph counties; in 2006, one was seen and photographed near Raleigh.

Area residents theorized it could be an Australian dingo, an escapee from the nearby North Carolina Zoo or even some new species. In May 2004, Asheboro businessman Bill Kurdian snapped a picture of one of the creatures feeding on corn he and his wife had put out for wild animals. After the sighting near Raleigh last year, state wildlife officials guessed that it could have been a hairless fox.

Hillenius saw Kurdian's photo Tuesday and said the animal seemed similar to the one he examined. The fox ID makes sense, Kurdian said. "I know that when he was out there, foxes would come up and feed next to it," he said. "There were no signs of aggression. They went up and smelled each other. There was no sense they feared each other. "Kurdian had hoped to trap the animal so it could be identified.

But it disappeared about a year ago, he said. Still, his nighttime photo of the mystery creature remains on numerous Web sites. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who have asked me about that," he said. Hillenius said his first goal was to identify the creature.

Now he wants to know how many are around. Evidently, there are more than a few. Sightings have been reported in Alaska and Colorado, in addition to the Carolinas.