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Foxes
Various true foxes: left to right, then top to bottom: red fox, Rüppell's fox, corsac fox, Bengal fox, Arctic fox, Blanford's fox, Cape fox, and fennec fox.
Various true foxes: left to right, then top to bottom: red fox, Rüppell's fox, corsac fox, Bengal fox, Arctic fox, Blanford's fox, Cape fox, and fennec fox.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Family: Canidae
Groups included
Cladistically included but traditionally excluded taxa

All other species in Canini

Foxes are small to medium-sized, omnivorous mammals belonging to several genera of the family Canidae. They have a flattened skull, upright triangular ears, a pointed, slightly upturned snout, and a long bushy tail (or brush).

Twelve species belong to the monophyletic "true foxes" group of genus Vulpes. Approximately another 25 current or extinct species are always or sometimes called foxes; these foxes are either part of the paraphyletic group of the South American foxes, or of the outlying group, which consists of the bat-eared fox, gray fox, and island fox.

Foxes live on every continent except Antarctica. The most common and widespread species of fox is the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) with about 47 recognized subspecies. The global distribution of foxes, together with their widespread reputation for cunning, has contributed to their prominence in popular culture and folklore in many societies around the world. The hunting of foxes with packs of hounds, long an established pursuit in Europe, especially in the British Isles, was exported by European settlers to various parts of the New World.

Biology

FoxSkelLyd1
Drawing of a fox skeleton.

General Description

Foxes are generally smaller than other members of the family Canidae such as wolves, jackals, and domestic dogs. For example, in the largest species, the red fox, males weigh on average between 4.1 and 8.7 kg (9.0 and 19.2 lb),, while the smallest species, the fennec fox, weighs just 0.7 to 1.6 kg (1.5 to 3.5 lb).

Fox-like features typically include a triangular face, pointed ears, an elongated rostrum, and a bushy tail.

Foxes are digitigrade, and thus, walk on their toes. Their claws are not retractable and therefore compared to a feline's, relatively dull. Fox vibrissae, or whiskers, are black. The whiskers on the muzzle, mystaciae vibrissae, average 100-110mm long, which the whiskers everywhere else on the head average to be shorter in length. Whiskers (carpal vibrissae) are also found on the forelimbs and average to be 40mm long, pointing downward and backward. Other physical characteristics vary according to habitat and its adaptive significance.

Fur

Fox species differ in fur color, length, and density. Coat colors range from pearly white to black and white to black flecked with white or grey on the underside. Fennec foxes, for example, (and other species of fox adapted to life in the desert, such as kit foxes) have large ears and short fur to aid in keeping the body cool. Arctic foxes, on the other hand, have tiny ears and short limbs as well as thick, insulating fur, which aid in keeping the body warm. Red foxes, by contrast, have a typical auburn pelt, the tail normally ending with white marking. A fox's coat color and texture may vary due to the change in seasons; fox pelts are richer and denser in the colder months and lighter in the warmer months. To get rid of the dense winter coat, foxes moult once a year around April; the process begins from the feet, up the legs, and then along the back. Coat color may also change as the individual ages.

Teeth

A fox's dentition, like all other Canids, are I 3/3, C 1/1, PM 4/4, M 3/2 = 42 (Bat-eared foxes have six extra molars, totaling in 48 teeth). Foxes also have pronounced carnassial pairs which are characteristic of a carnivore. These pairs consist of the upper premolar and the lower first molar and are work together to shear tough material like flesh. Their canines are also pronounced, another characteristic of a carnivore, which are excellent in gripping onto their target prey.

Alopex lagopus coiled up in snow
Arctic fox curled up in snow

Behavior

In the wild, the typical lifespan of a fox is two to three years, although individuals may live up to ten years. Unlike many canids, foxes are not always pack animals. Typically, they live in small family groups, but some (arctic foxes) are known to be solitary. Foxes are omnivores. The diet of foxes is largely made up of invertebrates such as insects, and small vertebrates such as reptiles and birds, and also can include eggs and plants. Many species are generalist predators, but some (such as the crab-eating fox) have more specialized diets. Most species of fox consume around 1 kg (2.2 lb) of food every day. Foxes cache excess food, burying it for later consumption, usually under leaves, snow, or soil. Foxes tend to use a pouncing technique where they crouch down to camouflage themselves in the terrain, then using their hind legs, leap up with great force to land on top of their targeted prey. Using their pronounced canine teeth, foxes grip on to their prey's neck and either shake until the prey is dead, or until the animal can be disemboweled. The gray fox is one of only two canine species known to climb trees; the other is the raccoon dog.

Fox Cubs

Litter sizes can vary greatly according to species and environment – the arctic fox, for example, can have up to eleven cubs.

Vocalization

Foxes makes many sounds:

  • Whine- Made shortly after birth. Occurs at a high rate when cubs are hungry and when their body temperatures are low. Whining stimulates the mother to care for her young; it also has been known to stimulate the male fox into caring for his mate and cubs.
  • Yelp- Made about 19 days later. The cubs' whining turns into infantile barks, yelps, which occur heavily during play.
  • Explosive call- At about a month old, the cubs can emit an explosive call which is intended to be threatening to intruders or other cubs; a high pitch howl.
  • Combative Call- In adults, the explosive call becomes an open-mouthed combative call during any conflict; a sharper bark.
  • Growl- An adult fox's indication to their cubs to feed or head to the adult's location.
  • Bark- Adult foxes warn against intruders and in defense by barking.

In the case of domesticated foxes, the whining seems to remain in adult individuals as a sign of excitement and submission in the presence of their owners.

Classification

Canids commonly known as foxes include the following genera and species:

Genus Species Picture
Canis Ethiopian wolf, sometimes called the Semien fox or Semien jackal
Cerdocyon Crab-eating fox
Cerdocyon thous MG 9503
Crab-eating fox, a South American species
Dusicyon Extinct genus, including the Falkland Islands wolf, sometimes known as the Falklands Islands fox
Lycalopex
  • Culpeo or Andean fox
  • Darwin's fox
  • South American gray fox
  • Pampas fox
  • Sechuran fox
  • Hoary fox
Fox pan de azucar
A South American gray fox in Pan de Azúcar National Park in the coast of Atacama Desert
Otocyon Bat-eared fox
Urocyon
Urocyon littoralis full figure
Island fox (Urocyon littoralis), in the Channel Islands, California, US
Vulpes
Fennec Fox @ Africa Alive, Lowestoft
The fennec fox is the smallest species of fox
Räv vid Revhusen i Ystad - Juli 2012.
Red fox at Ystad, Swedener

Conservation

Several fox species are endangered in their native environments. Pressures placed on foxes include habitat loss and being hunted for pelts, other trade, or control. Due in part to their opportunistic hunting style and industriousness, foxes are commonly resented as nuisance animals. On the other hand, foxes, while often considered pests themselves, have been successfully employed to control pests on fruit farms while leaving the fruit intact.

Island fox (Urocyon littoralis)

The island fox, though considered a near-threatened species throughout the world, is becoming increasingly endangered in its endemic environment of the California Channel Islands. A population on an island is smaller than those on the mainland because of limited resources like space, food and shelter. Island populations, therefore, are highly susceptible to external threats ranging from introduced predatory species and humans to extreme weather. On the California Channel Islands, it was found that the population of the island fox was so low due to an outbreak of canine distemper virus from 1999 to 2000 as well as predation by non-native golden eagles. Since 1993, the eagles have caused the population to decline by as much as 95%. Because of the low number of foxes, the population went through an Allee effect; this is where at low enough densities, an individual's fitness decreases. Conservationists, therefore, had to take healthy breeding pairs out of the wild population to breed them in captivity until they had enough foxes to release back into the wild. Nonnative grazers were also removed so that native plants would be able to grow back to their natural height, thereby providing adequate cover and protection for the foxes against golden eagles.

Darwin's fox (Pseudalopex fulvipes)

Darwin's fox is considered critically endangered because of their small known population of 250 mature individuals as well as their restricted distribution. On the Chilean mainland, the population is limited to Nahuelbuta National Park and the surrounding Valdivian rainforest. Similarly on Chiloé Island, their population is limited to the forests that extend from the southernmost to the northwestern most part of the island. Though the Nahuelbuta National Park is protected, 90% of the species live on Chiloé Island. A major problem the species faces, therefore, is their dwindling, limited habitat due to the cutting and burning of the unprotected forests. Because of deforestation, the Darwin's fox habitat is shrinking, allowing for their competitor's (chilla fox) preferred habitat of open space, to increase; the Darwin's fox, subsequently, is being outcompeted. Another problem they face is their inability to fight off diseases transmitted by the increasing number of pet dogs. To conserve these animals, researchers suggest the need for the forests that link the Nahuelbuta National Park to the coast of Chile and in turn Chiloé Island and its forests, to be protected. They also suggest that other forests around Chile be examined to determine whether Darwin's foxes have previously existed there or can live there in the future, should the need to reintroduce the species to those areas arise. And finally, the researchers advise for the creation of a captive breeding program, in Chile, because of the limited number of mature individuals in the wild.

Relationships with humans

Sunny Fox
A red fox on the porch of an Evergreen, Colorado home.

Foxes are often considered pests or nuisance creatures for their opportunistic attacks on poultry and other small livestock. Fox attacks on humans are not common but have increased in frequency. Many foxes adapt well to human environments, with several species classified as "resident urban carnivores" for their ability to sustain populations entirely within urban boundaries. Foxes in urban areas can live longer and can have smaller litter sizes than foxes in non-urban areas. Urban foxes are ubiquitous in Europe, where they show altered behaviors compared to non-urban foxes, including increased population density, smaller territory, and pack foraging.

Foxes have been introduced in numerous locations, with varying effects on indigenous flora and fauna.

Fox hunting

Fox hunting originated in the United Kingdom in the 16th century. Hunting with dogs is now banned in the United Kingdom, though hunting without dogs is still permitted. Red foxes were introduced into Australia in the early 19th century for sport, and have since become widespread through much of the country. Their impact on native vegetation and animals is subject to much speculation. It is practiced as recreation in several other countries including Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Russia and the United States.

Domestication

See also: Red fox#Taming and domestication

There are many records of domesticated red foxes and others, but rarely of sustained domestication. A recent and notable case is the Russian silver fox, which resulted in visible and behavioral changes, and is a case study of an animal population modeling according to human domestication needs. The current group of domesticated silver foxes are the result of nearly fifty years of experiments in the Soviet Union and Russia to domesticate the silver morph of the red fox. This selective breeding resulted in physical and behavioral traits appearing that are frequently seen in domestic cats, dogs, and other animals, such as pigmentation changes, floppy ears, and curly tails. Notably, the new foxes became more tame, allowing themselves to be petted, whimpering to get attention and sniffing and licking their caretakers.

In culture

In many cultures, the fox appears in folklore as a symbol of cunning and trickery, or as a familiar animal possessed of magic powers.

The constellation Vulpecula represents a fox.

In some countries, foxes are major predators of rabbits and hens. Population oscillations of these two species were the first nonlinear oscillation studied, and led to the now-famous Lotka-Volterra equation.

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