|The red fox is the largest species in the Vulpes genus and can naturally occur in three color variants: red, cross, and silver. As a terrestrial, nocturnal, solitary omnivore, this species is extremely adaptable and can live in several habitats including urban areas. The red fox is highly prized for its fur.|
Red foxes are the largest of the Vulpes species. The head and body length ranges from 455 to 900 millimeters, tail length from 300 to 555 millimeters, and weight from 3 to 14 kilograms. Red fox males are slightly larger than females.
The body mass and length of red foxes varies by region and by latitude. According to Bergmann’s rule, red foxes are larger in the north. Those in southern deserts and in North America are smaller than those in European populations.
Coloration of red foxes ranges from pale yellowish red to deep reddish brown on the upper parts and white, ash, or slate on the underside. The lower part of the legs is usually black and the tail usually has a white or black tip. The eyes of mature red foxes are yellow and the nose is dark brown or black. Two color variants of the red fox commonly occur. Cross foxes, making up 25% of red fox individuals, have reddish brown fur with a black stripe down the back and another across the shoulders. Silver foxes make up 10% of red fox individuals, and range from strong silver to nearly black. Silver foxes are the most prized by furriers.
Like many other canid species, red foxes have tail glands, located 75 millimeters above the root of the tail on its upper surface and lies within the dermis and subcutaneous tissue.
The dental formula of the red fox is 3/3 1/1 4/4 2/3 and the tooth row is more than half the length of the skull. The premolars are simple and pointed, with the exception of the upper fourth premolars, the carnassials. The red fox’s molar structure emphasizes crushing.
The red fox’s manus has five claws and the pes four claws. The first digit, or dew claw, is rudimentary but clawed and does not contact the ground.
Red foxes have been known to live 10 to 12 years in captivity, but live on average 3 years in the wild.
Earth, Leash, Skulk
Dog, Reynard, Tod
Cub, Kit, Pup
V. v. abietorum (British Columbian)
V. v. alascensis (Northern Alaskan)
V. v. alpherakyi (Eastern Trans-Caucasian)
V. v. anatolica(Anatolian)
V. v. arabica (Arabian)
V. v. atlantica (Atlas)
V. v. bangsi (Labrador)
V. v. barbara (Barbary)
V. v. beringiana (Anadyr)
V. v. cascadensis (Cascade Mountains)
V. v. caucasica (North Caucasian)
V. v. crucigera (European)
V. v. daurica (Trans-Baikal)
V. v. deletrix (Newfoundland)
V. v. dolichocrania (Ussuri)
V. v. dorsalis
V. v. flavescens (Turkmenian)
V. v. fulvus (Eastern American)
V. v. griffithi (Afghan)
V. v. harrimani (Kodiak)
V. v. hoole (Southern Chinese)
V. v. ichnusae (Sardinian)
V. v. indutus (Cyprus)
V. v. jakutensis (Yakutsk)
V. v. japonica (Japanese)
V. v. karagan (Karaganka)
V. v. kenaiensis (Kenai Peninsula)
V. v. kurdistanica (Trans-Caucasian Montane)
V. v. macroura (Wasatch Mountains)
V. v. montana (Hill)
V. v. necator (Sierra Nevada / High Sierra)
V. v. niloticus (Nile)
V. v. ochroxantha (Turkestan)
V. v. palaestina (Palestinian)
V. v. peculiosa (Korean)
V. v. pusilla (White-Footed)
V. v. reglis (Northern Plains)
V. v. rubricosa (Nova Scotia)
V. v. schrencki (Sakhalin)
V. v. silacea (Iberian)
V. v. splendidissima (Kurile Islands)
V. v. stepensis (Steppe Red)
V. v. tobolica (Tobolsk)
V. v. tschiliensis (Northern Chinese)
V. v. vulpes (Scandinavian)
Female red foxes are called vixens, and young cubs are known as kits.
Although the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) has a small native population in northern Scandinavia, while the corsac fox’s (Vulpes corsac) range extends into European Russia, the red fox is the only fox native to Western Europe, and so is simply called the fox in colloquial British English.
The word fox comes from Old English, which derived from Proto-Germanic *fuhsaz. Compare with West Frisian foks, Dutch vos, and German Fuchs. This, in turn, derives from Proto-Indo-European *puḱ, meaning thick-haired tail. Compare to the Hindi pū̃ch or Tocharian B päkā , meaning tail, and chowrie’ and Lithuanian paustìs translating to fur. The bushy tail also forms the basis for the fox’s Welsh name, llwynog, literally translating to bushy, from llwyn , meaning bush. Likewise, Portuguese: raposa from rabo and Lithuanian uodẽgis from uodegà mean tail, and Ojibwa waagosh from waa, which refers to the up and down bounce or flickering of an animal or its tail.
The scientific term vulpes derives from the Latin word for fox, and gives the adjectives vulpine and vulpecular.
The red fox is considered a more specialized form of Vulpes than the Afghan or Blanford’s (Vulpes cana), corsac (Vulpes corsac) and Bengal (Vulpes bengalensis) foxes in the direction of size and adaptation to carnivory. The skull displays far fewer neotenous traits than in other species, and its facial area is more developed. It is, however, not as adapted for a purely carnivorous diet as the Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata).
The species is Eurasian in origin, and may have evolved from either Vulpes alopecoides or the related Chinese Vulpes chikushanensis, both of which lived during the Middle Villafranchian. The earliest fossil specimens of the red fox were uncovered in Baranya, Hungary dating from 3.4-1.8 million years ago. The ancestral species was likely smaller than the current one, as the earliest red fox fossils are smaller than modern populations. The earliest fossil remains of the modern species date back to the mid-Pleistocene in association with the refuse of early human settlements. This has led to the theory that the red fox was hunted by primitive humans as both a source of food and pelts.
A recent extensive global phylogeny of red foxes that included about 1,000 samples from across the species’ range found that red foxes in North America are genetically distinct and probably merit recognition as a distinct species (Vulpes fulva).
Currently, 45 subspecies of the red fox are generally listed as valid. In 2010, another distinct subspecies, which inhabits the grasslands of the Sacramento Valley, V. v. patwin, was identified through mitochondrial haplotype studies. In 2018, Castello recognized 30 subspecies of the Old World red fox and 9 subspecies of the North American red fox as valid.
Substantial gene pool mixing between different subspecies is known. British red foxes have crossbred extensively with foxes imported from Germany, France, Belgium, Sardinia, and possibly Siberia and Scandinavia. However, genetic studies suggest very little differences between red foxes sampled across Europe. Lack of genetic diversity is consistent with the red fox being a highly vagile species, with one red fox covering 320 kilometers, or 200 miles, in under a year’s time.
Red fox subspecies in Eurasia and North Africa are divided into two categories, Northern foxes and Southern grey desert foxes. Northern foxes are large and brightly colored. Southern foxes include the Asian subspecies, the Afghan red fox (V. v. griffithi), the white-footed fox (V. v. pusilla), and the Turkmenian fox (V. v. flavescens). These foxes display transitional features between northern red foxes and smaller fox species. Their skulls possess more primitive, neotenous traits than the northern forms, and they are much smaller. The maximum sizes attained by southern foxes are invariably less than the average sizes of northern foxes. Their limbs are also longer, and their ears larger. Red foxes living in Middle Asia show physical traits intermediate to the northern and southern forms.
The Afghan red fox was described by Blyth in 1854 and is slightly smaller than the hill fox (V. v. montana). It has a more extensively hoary and silvered pelt and inhabits Kandahar and Afghanistan.
The white-footed fox was described by Blyth in 1854 and is slightly smaller than the Afghan red fox. It closely resembles the Bengal fox (Vulpes bengalensis) in size, but is distinguished by its longer tail and hind feet. This fox inhabits the Salt Range, Punjab, and Pakistan.
The Turkmenian fox of Northern Iran was described by J. E. Gray in 1838 and is a small subspecies with an infantile skull and an overall grey coloured coat. Its body length is 49–57.5 centimeters, and it weighs 2.2–3.2 kilograms.
A recent extensive global phylogeny of red foxes that included about 1,000 samples from across the species’ range found that red foxes originated in the Middle East, then radiated out.
The red fox has the widest geographical range of any member of the order Carnivora, covering nearly 70 million square kilometers and being distributed widely across the entire northern hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to southern North America, Europe, North Africa, the Asiatic steppes, India, and Japan. Red foxes have also been introduced elsewhere.
In the 17th century, the European red fox subspecies was introduced in Canada and the eastern United States (where they were relatively scarce and the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) was common) for fox hunting. There appears to be limited evidence for any meaningful mixing of introduced European foxes and those in North America and no Eurasian haplotypes have been found in foxes sampled.
The species was also introduced to Australia in the 1800’s and to Tasmania in the late 1990’s, although there is evidence that an eradication campaign for red foxes on Tasmania has proved effective. Elsewhere, the red fox has been introduced to the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and to the Isle of Man in the United Kingdom, although they never properly established on the Isle of Man and may subsequently have disappeared.
Red foxes are not found in Iceland, the Arctic islands, or some parts of Siberia. They are generally considered extinct in the Republic of Korea where there have been several mammal surveys in recent years (including the DMZ) that have not shown any evidence of foxes.
Red fox density is highly variable. In the United Kingdom, density varies between one fox per 40 square kilometers in Scotland and 1.17 per square kilometers in Wales, but can be as high as 30 foxes per square kilometers in some urban areas where food is superabundant. Social group density is one family per square kilometer in farmland, but may vary between 0.2-5 families per square kilometer in the suburbs. Fox density in mountainous rural areas of Switzerland is three foxes per square kilometer. 0.17 foxes per square kilometer has been recorded in the grassland/semi desert steppe of Mongolia. In northern boreal forests and Arctic tundra, they occur at densities of 0.1 foxes per square kilometer, and in southern Ontario, Canada at 1 fox per square kilometer. The average social group density in the Swiss mountains is 0.37 families per square kilometer.
Red foxes have been recorded in forest, shrubland, grassland, wetlands, desert, and artificial terrestrial habitats. They inhabit habitats as diverse as tundra, non-extreme deserts, and city centers, including London, Paris, and Stockholm.
The red fox’s natural habitat is dry, mixed vegetation landscape with abundant edge of scrub and woodland. They are also abundant on prairies, moorlands, sand dunes, farmland, and even mountains, above the tree-line, known to cross alpine passes. They occur from sea level to 4,500 meters.
In the United Kingdom, red foxes generally prefer mosaic patchworks of scrub, woodland, and farmland.
Red foxes flourish particularly well in urban areas. They are most common in residential suburbs consisting of privately owned, low-density housing and are less common where industry, commerce, or council rented housing predominates. In many habitats, foxes appear to be closely associated with people, even thriving in intensive agricultural areas.
Red foxes are terrestrial and either nocturnal or crepuscular.
Red foxes have excellent senses of vision, smell, and touch and extensively use a variety of vocalizations, facial expressions, and scent marking to communicate among themselves. There have been 28 different kinds of vocalizations described in red foxes and individuals have voices that can be distinguished. Vocalizations are used to communicate with foxes that are both nearby and very far away. Red fox scent marking is through urine, feces, anal sac secretions, the supracaudal gland, and glands around the lips, jaw, and the pads of the feet. Like many other canid species, red foxes have tail glands, located 75 millimeters above the root of the tail on its upper surface and lies within the dermis and subcutaneous tissue.
The red fox’s top speed is about 48 kilometers per hour and obstacles as high as 2 meters can be lept.
Red foxes are solitary animals and do not form packs like wolves. Ranges are occupied by an adult male and one or two adult females with their associated young. The red fox is as least partially territorial and remains in the same home range for life. During some parts of the year adjacent ranges may overlap somewhat, but parts may be regularly defended. Individual red fox adults have home ranges that vary in size depending on the quality of the habitat. In good areas, ranges may be between 5 and 12 square kilometers, but in poorer habitats, ranges are larger, between 20 and 50 square kilometers.
Individuals and family groups have main earthen dens and often other emergency burrows in the home range. Dens of other animals, such as rabbits or marmots, are often taken over by foxes. Larger dens may be dug and used during the winter and during birth and rearing of the young. The same den is often used over a number of generations. Pathways throughout the home range connect the main den with other resting sites, favored hunting grounds and food storage areas.
Red foxes are essentially omnivores, mostly eating rodents, eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), insects, and fruit. They will also eat carrion.
Red foxes eat between 0.5 and 1 kilograms of food each day and store food. They are very good at relocating these caches.
Red foxes have a characteristic manner of hunting mice, standing motionless while listening and watching intently for the mouse before leaping high and forcibly bringing the forelimbs straight down to pin the rodent to the ground.
Red fox mating behavior varies substantially. Red fox groups always have only one breeding male, but that male may also seek mating outside of the group. Often males and females are monogamous, but males with multiple female mates are also known, as are male/female pairs that use non-breeding female helpers in raising their young. Females mated to the same male fox may share a den.
Red fox sexual maturity is reached by 10 months.
Male red foxes will fight during the breeding season. Males have a cycle of fecundity, with full spermatogenesis only occurring from November to March.
The annual estrous period of female red foxes last from one to six days. Ovulation is spontaneous and does not require copulation to occur. The exact time of estrous and breeding varies across the broad geographic range of the species: December-January in the south, January-February in the central regions, and February-April in the north. Females may mate with a number of males but will establish a partnership with only one male.
Copulation usually lasts 15 or 20 minutes and is often accompanied by a vocal clamor. Implantation of the fertilized egg occurs between 10 and 14 days after a successful mating. Just before and for a time after giving birth the female remains in or around the den. The male partner will provision his mate with food but does not go into the maternity den. Gestation is typically between 51 and 53 days but can be as short as 49 days or as long as 56 days. Litters vary in size from 1 to 13 pups with an average of 5.
Red fox pups are born blind and weigh between 50-150 grams, but their eyes open 9-14 days after birth. The pups remain in the den for 4-5 weeks after birth where they are cooperatively cared for and provided with solid food by the mother, father, and sometimes un-mated helpers and older offspring. The pups are kept in and near a den and protected by the family to avoid predators. They are nursed by their mother for 56-70 days and are fully weaned by 8-10 weeks.
Red fox pups remain with their mother until at least the autumn following their birth, but some, especially females, will sometimes remain longer. The pups will disperse to their own territories as nearby as 10 kilometers and as far away as almost 400 kilometers. There, the grown pups will remain in the same home range for life.
Most red foxes that are taken by natural predators are young pups, but adults can be attacked by coyotes (Canis latrans), wolves, and other predators. Red foxes are rarely eaten by such predators. The most significant predators on red foxes are humans, who hunt foxes for their fur and kill them in large numbers as pests.
Red foxes are important fur bearers and the number of red foxes raised for fur exceeds that of any other species, except possibly American mink (Neovison vison). Silver foxes are the most prized by furriers. Worldwide trade in ranched red fox pelts, mainly silver pelts from Finland, has reduced since the 1900’s, but was 700,000 in 1988–1989 (excluding internal consumption in the USSR). Active fur trade in Britain in the 1970s was negligible.
In addition to fur farms, red foxes are widely kept in small wildlife parks and zoos, but there appears to be no systematic data on their breeding success. Being extremely shy, they are often poor exhibits.
Red foxes help control populations of their prey animals, such as rodents and rabbits, and may disperse seeds by eating fruit, but they are considered by many to be threats to poultry. In general, foxes hunt their natural prey, but individual foxes may learn to target domestic birds if they are not adequately protected. Foxes are also known vectors for rabies and can transmit the disease to humans and other animals.
Red foxes have caused considerable damage where they have been introduced. Their impacts on Australian fauna has been particularly well documented and control takes place by setting baits impregnated with 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate).
Most countries and states where trapping or hunting occurs have regulated closed versus open seasons and restrictions on methods of capture.
The red fox has been evaluated as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species because of its wide geographical range, vast introduction in other regions, adaptability, opportunistic diet, and success in urban areas.
The red fox has the widest geographical range of any member of the order Carnivora, being distributed widely across the entire northern hemisphere, and has been introduced elsewhere. Red Foxes are adaptable and opportunistic omnivores and are capable of successfully occupying urban areas. In many habitats, foxes appear to be closely associated with people, even thriving in intensive agricultural areas. The red fox’s general versatility and eclectic, omnivorous diet are likely to ensure its persistence despite changes in landscape and prey base. Culling may be able to reduce numbers well below carrying capacity in large regions, but no known situations exist where this currently threatens species persistence on any geographical scale.
The red fox’s population trend has been evaluated as Stable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Threats to the red fox are highly localized and include habitat degradation, loss, and fragmentation, exploitation, and direct and indirect persecution.
For example, a regional IUCN Red List assessment in Mongolia classified the species as Near Threatened mainly due to over-hunting, while in South Korea, red foxes have experienced declines due to habitat loss and poaching and are generally considered extinct.
The pre-breeding British red fox population has been estimated at about 240,000 individuals. The mean number of red foxes killed per unit area by gamekeepers has increased steadily since the early 1960’s in Britain, but it is not clear to what extent this reflects an increase in fox abundance. Although an increase in fox numbers following successful rabies control by vaccination was widely reported in Europe, no direct measures of population density have been taken. Red fox bagging in Germany has risen from 250,000 in 1982–1983 to 600,000 in 2000–2001.
The red fox is widely regarded as a pest and is unprotected, but is present in most temperate-subarctic conservation areas.
The red fox is not listed in CITES Appendices at species level. However, the subspecies griffithi, montana, and pusilla (=leucopus) are listed on CITES – Appendix III (India).
In the European Union, Canada, and the Russian Federation, trapping methods are regulated under an agreement on international trapping standards between these countries, which was signed in 1997. Other countries are signatories to ISO/DIS 10990-5.2 animal (mammal) traps, which specifies standards for trap testing.
In Europe and North America, hunting traditions and/or legislation impose closed seasons on fox hunting.
In the United Kingdom and a few other European countries, derogation from these provisions allows breeding season culling for pest-control purposes. Here, traditional hunting ethics encouraging restrained use may be at odds with harder hitting pest-control ambitions. This apparent conflict between different interest groups is particularly evident in the UK, where fox control patterns are highly regionally variable.
In some regions, such as principal lowland areas where classical mounted hunting operates, limited economic analyses suggest that the principal motive for these communal fox hunts is as a sport; the number killed is small compared with the cost of the hunting. In these regions, most anthropogenic mortality is by individual farmers shooting foxes. The mounted communal hunts do exhibit restraint; hunting takes place for a limited season and for a prescribed number of days per week. Elsewhere, in upland regions, communal hunting by foot with guns and dogs may make economic sense, depending on the number of lambs lost to foxes, though data on this is poor, and also on the current value of lost lambs. This type of fox hunting may also be perceived as a sport by its participants.