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Foxes are a remarkable species whose intelligence and pragmatism has led to them becoming the most widespread ...
2023-01-06 09:00:00

Never Outfoxed
The Most Feline of Canines

Photo by Jeremy Hynes/Unsplash
Never Outfoxed
Never Outfoxed

In London they dine out in restaurants, in the polar zone they steal leftovers from bears. Unlike humans, they look both ways before crossing the street. They can climb and travel thousands of miles. Thanks to their craftiness and wisdom, foxes are the most widespread carnivores on Earth.

Read in 12 minutes

With foxes, what you see is what you get. And even those who’ve not seen one in the wild are surely familiar with how they look. Foxes feature as symbols of cleverness in many cultures, and unlike many other myths (this might come as a surprise, but hedgehogs don’t eat apples, and earwigs won’t come near your ears), this representation is absolutely correct. First of all, they are predators. Long ago, during his lectures on behavioral ecology, the British biologist Robin Baker claimed that predators will always be more intelligent than herbivores because there’s more evolutionary pressure on them to be cunning. He said something along the lines of: “A predator needs to outsmart another animal, while the only thing a deer must outsmart is a blade of grass.” It’s a nice one-liner, but it does somewhat oversimplify reality. It also sidesteps the fact that it’s fundamentally difficult to make comparisons regarding intelligence, because it’s not even completely certain what intelligence is. Today it is known that one of its strongest determinants is social life. Social species must have sophisticated communication systems and must know about “politics,” as well as remember alliances and animosities, social statuses, and many specific individuals. This doesn’t change the fact that carnivores really are clever—which is why humans so often choose dogs and cats as life companions—but they’re definitely not the only ones. As far as carnivores go, foxes are rather small, so they can’t just make up for cognitive deficits with force. Furthermore, a great many of them like to make use of the various food sources available to them. And for that, intellect comes in very handy.

Before discussing foxes any further, there is an important issue to clear up: who (not what) they actually are. They all belong to the order Carnivora, family Canidae (dogs). Depending on the species, the body weight of an adult specimen varies from around two pounds for the smallest, the fennec (which makes up for that with its ears), to around twenty pounds for the red fox. Foxes usually live in family groups of limited size, and not across the whole year. Unlike their larger cousins—wolves, African wild dogs, dholes (those ginger dogs from The Second Jungle Book)—they don’t hunt in packs, because they usually feed on prey that an individual fox can easily handle by themselves. Across the globe there are around twenty-two species of these mammals. Around, because taxonomists approach the richness of nature in various ways: some seek to differentiate an increasing number of species, while others prefer the opposite, especially if the animals in question are rather similar. Foxes live in all kinds of land environments—from deserts and steppes, via bogs, forests, and high mountains, to the Arctic tundra—and on all continents apart from Antarctica.

The word “fox” has, at least recently, developed two meanings. The first, more general one, denotes every similar canid with an elongated body, a long fluffy tail and relatively short legs. The other, more precise and correct one designates only representatives of the genus Vulpes, i.e., the red fox and its twelve closest relatives. There are a few cool customers there, such as the wonderful desert fennec from North Africa and the incredible Tibetan fox, which looks like it’s always judging you.

Ginger Beauty

I’ve not seen most of these animals in the wild, apart from two fox species and two false foxes (so they probably don’t count). Naturally, I’ve had the most contact with the red fox—most people in the world could say the same. As recently as one hundred years ago, the wild land mammal with the second-largest (after humans) global natural range was the wolf. But because of various kinds of pressure from Homo sapiens, it lost its place to its smaller cousin. The red fox can be found on all continents apart from South America (probably—there are ambiguous reports about its introduction in Chile) and Antarctica (definitely). At present, most researchers are of the opinion that North American red foxes belong to a different, although very similar, species to the European kind, but it is certain that red foxes were artificially introduced to America from Europe at the end of the 18th century.

Foxes were brought to a continent already abundant with similar animals because the local species had the very inconvenient habit of running up trees when English gentlemen (here I am thinking intensely about one of my favorite, although officially non-existent words: “gentlemaniac”) chased them on horseback with packs of dogs for “sport” (in the bloodiest sense of the word). This is why British foxes were introduced to North America—they would let themselves be elegantly torn to pieces. There were equally noble reasons for the introduction of foxes in Australia, where results were much more catastrophic, and not only for the pursued foxes. These wise and flexible animals adapted to Australia wonderfully and commenced an unprecedented massacre of endemic fauna. There are many stories like this, and all of them challenge not only our beliefs about human nobility, but also the legitimacy of the word “sapiens” in our species name. We still haven’t learned that every time we interfere with a well-functioning ecosystem we inevitably mess something up.

I had seen foxes in various situations throughout my life, but I only got to know them better when—a long time ago now—I was a student in London. Every day on my way to class I would see a fox family from the train window. I often interrupted my journey to observe them, which might have had a negative impact on my university attendance, but was extremely beneficial to my general nature education. A fox family usually consists of two parents and their cubs, very often supported by young adult individuals from previous litters who help out with their younger siblings. This way, they learn how to look after the youngest, and following their parents’ death have the chance of inheriting their dwelling. The family in London lived in a railway embankment, a few feet away from the track, and the kids played blithely under an adult’s watchful eye—whenever a train approached, the adult would chivvy the babies off the tracks with a sharp bark. The London foxes I saw behaved completely differently on the roadside. Before crossing the street, they always looked around and ran across only when there wasn’t a single car in sight. But, unlike cars, trains aren’t in the habit of turning suddenly and hitting anyone. Back then, in the 1990s, London was home to over 25,000 foxes, dining at the best restaurants. This diet suited them—they were, on average, over a pound heavier than their rural cousins.

Later, back home in Poland, I researched fox feeding habits for my Master’s thesis. This involved wandering around Masurian forests and collecting fox droppings. I remember once, in Warsaw, meeting a friend from the French Studies department, who told me in tones of disbelief that apparently there was a guy in the Biology department who walked around forests picking up fox poo. All I can say is that, yes, there was indeed someone who did that: me. Greetings to you, Samantha, my old friend. Collecting animal feces might not seem like the most exciting activity, but it’s the best method of examining what they eat—much better than killing them and checking the contents of their stomachs. Apart from the obvious ethical concerns, the former  solution means the same fox can work for a researcher throughout the year, and provide them with countless samples. These are dried, and then—so that they can be analyzed—soaked in hot water. The resultant broths (it’s a mystery why nobody wanted to visit me in the lab) get rinsed in a sieve, then dried again. Now clean, the odorless remains can be examined under a microscope.

Apart from being a source of interesting information, this was also an aesthetic experience. Frog bones or rodent teeth look like abstract sculptures under a microscope; the bristle-like setae of earthworms and insect wings gleam like opulent gems. This was how I learned that these infamous hen murderers eat very little poultry and not many more hares, but gorge themselves on voles, for which farmers should really thank them by erecting monuments. At the end of summer and in fall foxes become practically vegetarian and switch over to fruit—berries, apples, and pears. They are also not a danger to cats or dogs. While in London, I saw an adult fox and a cat sitting close to each other, just a few yards apart, both minding their own business. The animals knew that a confrontation would be unnecessarily unpleasant for both sides.

Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz
Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz

The Best Fur in the World

The other fox species that I am fortunate enough to meet regularly is the Arctic fox. In Polish nomenclature it used to be considered a separate genus, but in recent years scientists have concluded that it resembles the ginger one enough that they can be combined. Of course, it’s not just about similarities in appearance—their closeness has also been confirmed by molecular methods. The most prominent difference is that Arctic foxes are practically half the size, have proportionally shorter snouts and smaller ears. The latter is one of the characteristics of animals who live in cold regions, as described in Allen’s rule, formulated in the 19th century: these animals’ protruding body parts are proportionally smaller in order to minimize heat dissipation. This is because heat is generated deep inside the body, in its volume, and lost via body surface. As body size increases, the volume grows quicker than its surface area (because it grows on a cubic, not square basis). Thus the lower the surface area-to-volume ratio, the more heat the animal can retain.

Additionally, Arctic foxes are active throughout the year, which makes them the smallest land mammals facing polar winters. The Arctic hare also doesn’t hibernate, but it’s a bit heavier, and even the smaller lemmings and stoats that hunt them cheat, because they spend the winter deep in tunnels under the snow and don’t give a hoot about what happens on the surface. In the winter, Arctic foxes develop exceptionally thick fur, which is almost always completely white, although there are populations which stay roughly the same color throughout the year.

American scientists, who—during the Cold War—tried to steal the secrets of Arctic mammals to prepare soldiers for combat on the polar fronts, were hugely impressed by the incredible insulation properties of Arctic foxes’ winter coats. At the time, they conducted brutal experiments which consisted of chucking various animals into a freezer and lowering the temperature to see when they started to experience thermal discomfort. Reindeer, polar bears (incidentally, let’s take a moment to imagine putting a polar bear inside a freezer), and other passive research participants started feeling cold at various temperatures, but the Arctic fox just curled up in a ball, covered its nose with its fluffy tail, and went to sleep. When the freezer reached its minimum temperature, the fox was still asleep. The researchers had to move it to another research lab with a better freezer, and it was only at almost -44°F that the subject started showing some signs of unease. Perhaps it thought the morning was slightly chilly.

Arctic foxes live in mountains, on plains, and on the coast, and in all these places they are able to find enough diverse food to survive. Sometimes they follow polar bears around and help themselves to their leftovers; sometimes they feast on seafood. They can also stick close to humans. According to the daily records of Arctic expeditions, initially they are cute and inquisitive guests, and after a while—cheeky pilferers. A family of these foxes—that I have known for many years and delightedly spied on—lives on Spitsbergen, among the rocks at the feet of Alkhornet Mountain, which is home to a colony of thousands of thick-billed murres and black-legged kittiwakes. In the summer, food is abundant there, especially during the days when young birds leave the nest and try to get to the sea. Innumerable fat, delicious, and still quite clumsy fledglings run all around the plain, and the foxes celebrate. However, the birds are so numerous (they throw themselves from their nests to the ground almost simultaneously on purpose) that the predators are unable to eat them all. When the environment is more hostile, Arctic foxes can travel incredible distances in search of food. In 2018, scientists couldn’t believe their eyes as they followed the epic journey of a young female equipped with a satellite transmitter: she left Svalbard at the end of March, walked across the frozen ocean to the north of Greenland, and then, in June, finished her stroll on the Canadian Ellesmere Island. In seventy-six days, this small animal traveled around 2,175 miles, a world record for her species. Arctic foxes are some of my absolute favorites in the animal kingdom and I admire them immensely.

The Floppy Ears of Domestication

Due to their solitary hunting style, climbing talent, and a few other characteristics, foxes are often described as the most feline of all canines. But could foxes be our companions? The year 1959 at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk saw the beginning of one of the 20th century’s most interesting experiments, which is still in progress. Dmitry Belyayev and his assistant Lyudmila Trut—who quickly took over and still runs the project—decided to study the mechanisms accompanying the domestication of wild animals. For the experiment, they used red foxes, as they are less troublesome than wolves and reproduce more quickly. They selected the most gentle-tempered individuals, not taking their appearance into consideration. It only took six generations (i.e., six years) for the initial population of wild, easily-spooked foxes to contain an increasing percentage of animals who would wag their tails at the sight of a person, before fawning and then crying when the person left. Today they constitute a large majority of the animals at the research center. Interestingly, subsequent generations also started to display physical characteristics of domestication. Their snouts grew shorter, their ears became softer, their tails turned upwards, and some even developed a spotted coat. What’s more, their adrenaline-producing glands shrank and their stress hormone levels decreased, while their serotonin levels increased. It transpired that wild foxes turned into domesticated animals rather quickly, and were quite happy to live among people. The most fascinating thing is that the only selection factor was the mildness of their temperament. The external characteristics—which often appear in other domesticated species—appeared of their own accord.

This, however, doesn’t mean that humans should keep foxes at home for our own pleasure. Neither of us would find it easy to tolerate each other. Apart from the Novosibirsk ones, foxes are wild animals who need space, even if they’ve been kept in cages for generations just because some people are still of the completely absurd opinion that one can look good in someone else’s fur. They are absolutely mesmerizing, beautiful, and remarkably intelligent animals. I hope that soon a time comes when the barbaric practice of farming them—or any other beings—for their furs becomes a grim memory. As a matter of fact, I hope this happens to all industrial livestock production. Because Robin Baker was wrong. It’s not only predators who are intelligent and have feelings. The more we know about other animals, the more deserving of respect they turn out to be.


Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz

We keep track of the latest scientific reports, delve into the unknown and read pages and pages, all so that we can share our new-found knowledge with you. We check the facts, add up the equations and compare the findings. That is why your support matters to us. Thank you for being with PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.

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Mikołaj Golachowski

is a polar explorer with a PhD in natural sciences, who spends four months every year in Antarctica and in the Arctic. Mikołaj writes about nature for both children and adults. His latest books are “Czochralem antarktycznego słonia” [I’ve Ruffled an Antarctic Elephant] (Marginesy, 2016) and “Gęby, dzioby i nochale” [Gobs, Beaks and Schnozzes] (Babaryba, 2016).