Vulpesfoxes

Diversity

the genus Vulpes is made up of 12 extant species, all referred to as the “true foxes.” There are 6 species only known from fossils. Foxes are part of the Family Canidae which also includes wolves, coyotes, and dogs, but we are able to see some distinct characteristics separating foxes into their own genus. Foxes are distinguished by their small size, flattened skulls with pointed snouts, and a large bushy tail (California Academy of Science, 2018). “Vulpes” means fox in Latin. The best known and most widely distributed species, Vulpes vulpes, was first described by Linnaeus in 1758. Due to the vast land area the red fox occupies, it has been suggested that there may be more genetically distinct species within the genus yet to be described (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). ("California Academy of Sciences", 2018; Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016)

Geographic Range

Red foxes are found throughout much of the northern hemisphere, from North America, Europe, and India to Japan. Several introductions of red foxes have resulted in non-native ranges in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). Some fox species have smaller ranges with more extreme climates such as in the northern tundra and arctic regions. Foxes are not found in tropical regions. The majority of the diversity is found in northern latitudes (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016)

Habitat

Foxes are found in a wide range of habitats from the desert (fennec fox, Vulpes zerda) to the Arctic (arctic fox, Vulpes lagopus), and from high elevations in the mountains to open plains (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). Foxes are opportunistic and thrive where they are able to find food and shelter. Foxes are common in suburban and urban areas where they can take advantage of human food sources, but tend to stay clear of large industrial areas (Dorning and Harris, 2017). In many regions foxes tend to thrive where humans are also found, appearing in many agricultural areas, farmland, and in patchy woodland (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). (Dorning and Harris, 2017; Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016)

Physical Description

Foxes have a dog-like appearance, but on average are quite a bit smaller in size compared to most other canids. They have shorter legs with a slender body, a distinct flattened skull with a pointed snout known as a “fox face” and varying sizes of upright pointed ears. Like all canids, foxes have a muscular frame, strong jaws, and teeth for grasping prey. Blunt claws are primarily useful for gripping the ground when chasing down their meal. Contributing to the foxes’ lengthy appearance is its long bushy tail that makes up about one third of its body length and in many species consists of a black tip or small accent at the end. The tail can also be used for the purpose of keeping warm by wrapping it around their bodies (National Geographic, 2018). Usually ranging in size from 92-107 cm in length and weighing around 4.5-5 kg, generally the males being larger (Saunders, 1988). Several traits vary to some extent depending on which species you are looking at and how they have adapted to survive in their habitat. For example, the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) has a very dense, insulated coat to block out the harsh cold temperatures and small ears to prevent heat loss. On the other hand a species such as the fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) that lives in the desert has a very thin coat and large ears to help stay cool. A solid color coat is found in the majority of species, but there are instances where the coat color changes throughout the year to better camouflage against the current seasons landscape (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). ("New World Encyclopedia", 2017; Saunders, 1988)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger

Reproduction

Foxes are solitary animals that spend most of their time alone. Many foxes are monogamous, meaning a male and a female become a mating pair for either life or a mating season (Mammal Group, 2014). Females have also been seen with several males in pursuit, as well as social living groups with numbers of around ten (Baker et al. 2004). These groups are thought to be extended family with a dominant breeding pair that gets assistance from the other subordinates when it comes to caring for the young. In solitary foxes the males follow the female that he shares or overlaps territory with. Foxes’ fur, primarily around the tail and muzzle regions, have the ability to secrete certain types of lipids. These serve as an attractant or scent for females and males to find each other (McLean et al. 2017). Also referred to as a musk gland, the odor released is primarily used for individual recognition which plays a role when choosing a mate (Saunders, 1988). (Baker, et al., 2004; "The Fox Website", 2014; McLean, et al., 2017; Saunders, 1988)

Fox species tend to breed from late December to late March, varying by species and habitat. Underground dens are built and lined with grass and other leaf litter to create a soft warm enclosure for the litter (Saunders, 1988). These dens are randomly spaced, occupied year after year, and are located in highly vegetated and covered areas (Meia and Weber, 1992). Litters are born in March and April after a gestation period lasting 7 to 8 weeks. Females have a litter annually ranging in size from 1 up to 11 pups, with most averaging 6. Foxes are born blind, opening their eyes after about 9 days, and start out with a grey coat. The litter is often divided between several dens to help with predator avoidance, and the pups spend time playing with each other until around 12 weeks when they are fully weaned and ready to join the parents on trips outside the den. By early fall the pups are ready to begin life on their own and travel away from their family den to have litters of their own (Saunders, 1988). (Saunders, 1988; Weber and Meia, 1992)

Foxes provide a substantial amount of parental investment, ensuring the survival of their young after they are old enough to become independent. Once a female has mated, the first goal is finding a warm and safe den to raise her young (Mammal Group, 2014). The mating pair of foxes work as a team to raise the young, each parent playing a specific role. The female spends the majority of her time in the den nursing the litter so they are strong once fully weaned around the 12 week or 3 month mark (Saunders, 1988). Generally the male plays the providing role, bringing food to the den for the mother and eventually the litter to feed on. Offspring are able to join the parents after 12 weeks on hunting excursions where they will learn the skills it takes to survive and not go hungry (Saunders, 1988). Groups of foxes have shown signs of alloparental care, when other adult foxes assist with the care of young that are not their own. This has not been seen to increase the offspring survival, as it is possible that infanticide may occur in groups as well (Baker et al. 2014). (Baker, et al., 2004; "The Fox Website", 2014; Saunders, 1988)

Lifespan/Longevity

Foxes in the wild have a span of only 2-4 years (National Geographic, 2018). In captivity they live on average 10-12 years depending on the species. The oldest fox recorded in captive history lived to be 21.3 years old (AnAge, 2017). ("AnAge: The Animal Ageing and Longevity Database", 2017; "National Geographic", 2018)

Behavior

The majority of fox species are solitary or nomadic, spending most of their lives alone, except during breeding season when they will have monogamous relationships with a mate (Rioux et al., 2017). Foxes are territorial animals, usually staying within a certain area. Migratory movements have been seen due to changing environments, primarily in the arctic where sea ice availability is hard to predict. Foxes characteristically stay in an area as long as food is available, but when resource abundance becomes depleted they are able to compensate by moving short to very long distances to find new resources (Lai et al., 2017). As population density of fox species increases there is also an increase in the formation of social groups being established. These groups consist of one dominant pair and a few other subordinate adults that tend to be related (Dorning and Harris, 2017). Breeding dens are where the cubs will first start to play with littermates and learn the basics of survival techniques from their parents (Saunders, 1988). It is key for fox parents to be present at the den as much as possible, their absence increases the chance of cub mortality by predators. Parental behavior and experience is important to prevent predation and increase the success of the offspring after they leave the den on their own (Erlandsson et al., 2017). Cubs develop a hierarchy within the den, sometimes leading to the actual death of a littermates. More dominant cubs have better access to food and often hold higher social status in the family or group (Harris, 2010). Foxes are opportunistic feeders that primarily feed on rodents using a distinct hunting technique. The pouncing technique, when the fox launches vertically into the air and comes down directly on their prey with force, is learned at an early age and allows the fox to kill their prey quickly. This technique helps ensure the kill and little to no fight with the prey, which will save energy and avoid any injury. Hunting is done for the foxes’ individual survival, unless they are currently raising young where both male and female will participate in providing food (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). In social groups foraging is shaped by competition with the dominant individuals taking advantage of the resources first. Foxes having such a broad diet is able to reduce the amount of competition seen in these groups (Dorning and Harris, 2017). ("New World Encyclopedia", 2017; Dorning and Harris, 2017; Erlandsson, et al., 2017; Harris, 2010; Weber and Meia, 1992)

Communication and Perception

Foxes are vocal animals. Unlike other canids they do not vocalize as a group. They use several different vocalizations to stay in contact with relatives because each individual has its own unique voice. A single voice is capable of spanning over a range of five octaves. The most well-known fox call is similar to a kind of bark that usually lasts for three to five syllables and resembles, “Wow-wow-wow”. This vocalization is used at all distances, is high pitched, and thought to be used as an identification system between individuals (Nosowitz, 2013). Another sound created by foxes is a basic alarm bark that consists of only one syllable. It is very sharp when heard at long distances, but is somewhat of a cough in close quarters. This is mainly used by parents to alarm pups of danger nearby. There is also a vocalization known as gekkering, which is a stuttering noise that resonates from the throat. This sound is mainly heard during mating season or during any aggressive interactions. Lastly there is the vixen’s wail or scream, a long, drawn-out, single note that is usually heard during breeding season. Thought originally to only be made by females in heat trying to call upon an available mate, it has also been observed being produced by males (Nosowitz, 2013). Foxes are also able to communicate their identities through the use of different scent/musk glands found the body including the muzzle and tail (Saunders, 1988). The tail itself can be used as a signal or flag to notify other foxes of their presence (National Geographic, 2018). ("National Geographic", 2018; Nosowitz, 2013; Saunders, 1988)

Food Habits

Foxes are in the order Carnivora but they are actually considered to be omnivores, consuming a wide range of food sources in their diet (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). This includes things such as carrion and small rodents to others such as berries, fruits, and seeds. Some of the most common prey items are mice, voles, and hares when hunting, but foxes are also known to steal the eggs of birds, and turtles or kill the young of other small mammals as a meal. Social groups may hunt cooperatively to surround prey, while individuals tend to cover an area over and over finding prey using their keen senses of smell and sound (Saunders, 1988). ("New World Encyclopedia", 2017; Saunders, 1988)

Predation

Adult foxes have very few predators besides for coyotes, bears, and wolves (Mammal Group and University of Bristol, 2014). The largest threat posed is by human hunting and trapping. The young face a broader range of threats from other small carnivores and many large birds of prey such as eagles, which is why they must remain in the den and out of sight for weeks (Saunders, 1988). (Saunders, 1988)

  • Known Predators
    • Coyote
    • Birds of Prey

Ecosystem Roles

Foxes have two main ecosystem roles: the control of pests and small rodents and a role in seed dispersal due to their consumption of fruits and berries. Most introductions of fox species have been to control a species of small rodent that had become invasive and was affecting crop growth. In most of these cases fox were efficient at removing and minimizing the number of pests, while leaving the crops fully intact and unaffected (Saunders, 1988). (Saunders, 1988)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Foxes do not hold a very positive role in the human eye, except for their ability to adapt to new areas allowing for them to be introduced for pest management on farms and agricultural areas (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). Humans do raise foxes for their fur, it is the most popular seller second only to the American Mink (Neovison vison). Farms specialize on distinct color variants that are rarely found in the wild, and trade has expanded to be worldwide (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). ("New World Encyclopedia", 2017; Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Foxes are considered a pest in most countries where they move into urban areas surviving on human waste, and have killed household pets of both dog and cat (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). Although introductions have had positive effects in some areas, in Australia the introduction of foxes pushed many native species near extinction and could now even be considered invasive because of this. They also have negative effects on native fauna in some regions (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). Foxes are also carriers of several diseases such as rabies, canine distemper, and sarcoptic mange, which all help regulate mortality in the populations, but can create problems when living in such close proximity to humans who may own dogs that could easily acquire the disease if exposed (Saunders, 1988). ("New World Encyclopedia", 2017; Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016; Saunders, 1988)

Conservation Status

Currently the majority of true fox species are considered to be of least concern when it comes to conservation (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). Foxes are still threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, and exploitation which have a caused a decline in their numbers. Regarded as pests, foxes are unprotected in most countries where trapping and hunting in only regulated with the use of seasons and restrictions on methods of capture. Some countries see fox hunting as a sport, where groups will head out on foot to shoot and kill on a limited time basis. Farmers also shoot to kill on their land when foxes threaten their livestock and/or crops (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). Hunting is the main threat to fox mortality due to a method known as culling that is used to control populations. Culling is the action of selective slaughter to reduce the population of a wild animal. This process will likely be able to drop population levels below carrying capacity, but will not put stress on the persistence of the species (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

Foxes are often kept in wildlife parks where do quite well due to their versatility and ability to adapt, yet they are quite shy (Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016). Attempts at domesticating foxes has been in the works since the 1950's. Russian geneticist Dmitry K. Belyaev attempted to create the first tame fox population in Russia by using a specific breeding program. By selecting for the trait of "tame-ability" a small population of tame foxes has been born with noticeable changes in friendliness and some physical characteristics such as floppier ears (Jones, 2018). Since foxes hold a global presence they are quite often found in the history and culture of many nations and cultural groups (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). One association found in literature is between foxes and the ability of shape shifting. Primarily part of the Shinto religion, there are many stories where foxes will take the form of humans to trap other humans. This has also been seen in western literature and performances such as Janacek's opera, "The cunning little vixen" from 1922 (Mammal Group and University of Bristol, 2014). ("New World Encyclopedia", 2017; Hoffman and Sillero-Zubiri, 2016; Jones, 2018; "The Fox Website", 2014)

Contributors

Tru Hubbard (author), Colorado State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

frugivore

an animal that mainly eats fruit

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

polar

the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

scavenger

an animal that mainly eats dead animals

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

tundra

A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

2017. "AnAge: The Animal Ageing and Longevity Database" (On-line). Accessed April 07, 2018 at http://genomics.senescence.info/species/entry.php?species=Vulpes_vulpes.

2018. "California Academy of Sciences" (On-line). iNaturalist. Accessed February 06, 2018 at https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/42054-Vulpes.

National Geographic Partners, LLC. 2018. "National Geographic" (On-line). Red Fox. Accessed April 08, 2018 at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/r/red-fox/.

2017. "New World Encyclopedia" (On-line). Fox. Accessed February 13, 2018 at http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Fox.

Mammal Group, University of Bristol. 2014. "The Fox Website" (On-line). Ecology and Behaviour. Accessed February 19, 2018 at http://www.thefoxwebsite.net/ecology/ecologymating.

Baker, P., S. Funk, M. Bruford, H. Stephen. 2004. Polygynandry in a red fox population: implications for the evolution of group living in canids?. Behavioral Ecology, 15/5: 766-778.

Baldwin, M. 2015. "RED FOX" (On-line). Wildlife Online. Accessed March 26, 2018 at http://www.wildlifeonline.me.uk/red_fox.html.

Dorning, J., S. Harris. 2017. Dominance, gender, and season influence food patch use in a group-living, solitary foraging canid. Behavioral Ecology, 28/5: 1302-1313.

Erlandsson, R., T. Meijer, S. Wagenius, A. Angerbjorn. 2017. Indirect effects of prey fluctuation on survival of juvenile arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus): a matter of maternal experience and litter attendance. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 95/4: 239-246.

Harris, S. 2010. "DISCOVER Wildlife" (On-line). Understand fox behaviour. Accessed February 26, 2018 at http://www.discoverwildlife.com/british-wildlife/understand-fox-behaviour.

Heydon, M., J. Reynolds. 2000. Fox (Vulpes vulpes) management in three contrasting regions of Britain, in relation to agricultural and sporting interests. Journal of Zoology, 251: 237-252.

Hoffman, M., C. Sillero-Zubiri. 2016. "Vulpes vulpes" (On-line). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed February 06, 2018 at http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T23062A46190249.en.

Jones, L. 2018. "BBC" (On-line). A Soviet Scientist Created the Only Tame Foxes in the World. Accessed April 21, 2018 at http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160912-a-soviet-scientist-created-the-only-tame-foxes-in-the-world.

Knauer, F., H. Kuchenhoff, S. Pilz. 2010. A statistical analysis of the relationship between red fox Vulpes vulpes and its prey species (grey partridge Perdix perdix, brown hare Lepus europaeus and rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Western Germany from 1958 to 1998. Wildlife Biology, 16/1: 56-65.

Lai, S., J. Bety, D. Berteaux. 2017. Movement tactics of a mobile predator in a meta-ecosystem with fluctuating resources: the arctic fox in the High Arctic. Oikos, 126/7: 937-947.

Lai, S., J. Bety, D. Berteaux. 2015. Spatio-temporal hotspots of satellite-tracked arctic foxes reveal a large detection range in a mammalian predator. Movement Ecology, 3.

McLean, S., N. Davies, D. Nichols. 2017. Lipids of the Tail Gland, Body and Muzzle Fur of the Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes. LIPIDS, 52/7: 599-617.

Mella, V., C. McArthur, R. Frend, M. Crowther. 2018. Foxes in tree: a threat for Australian arboreal fauna?. Australian Mammalogy, 40/1: 103-105.

Nosowitz, D. 2013. "Popular Science" (On-line). What Sound Does a Fox Really Make?. Accessed April 07, 2018 at https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/what-sound-does-fox-make.

Rioux, M., S. Lai, C. Nicolas, J. Bety, D. Berteaux. 2017. Winter home range fidelity and extraterritorial movements of Arctic fox pairs in the Canadian High Arctic. Polar Research, 36/1: 11.

Saunders, D. 1988. "Adirondack Ecological Center" (On-line). Red Fox. Accessed February 14, 2018 at http://www.esf.edu/aec/adks/mammals/red_fox.htm.

Weber, J., J. Meia. 1992. CHARACTERISTICS AND DISTRIBUTION OF BREEDING DENS OF THE RED FOX (VULPES-VULPES) IN A MOUNTAINOUS HABITAT. ZEITSCHRIFT FUR SAUGETIERKUNDE-INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MAMMALIAN BIOLOGY, 57/3: 137-143.

Willson, , Reeder. 2018. "Mammal Species of the World" (On-line). Accessed March 25, 2018 at https://www.departments.bucknell.edu/biology/resources/msw3/browse.asp?s=y&id=14000865.