The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the largest of the true foxes and the most abundant member of the Carnivora, being distributed across the entire Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, Central America and Asia. Its range has increased alongside human expansion, having been introduced to Australia, where it is considered harmful to native mammals and bird populations. Because of these factors, it is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. Due to its presence in Australia, it is included among the list of the worlds 100 worst invasive species.
The red fox originated from smaller-sized ancestors from Eurasia during the Middle Villafranchian period, and colonised North America shortly after the Wisconsin glaciation. Among the true foxes, the red fox represents a more progressive form in the direction of carnivory. Apart from its large size, the red fox is distinguished from other fox species by its ability to adapt quickly to new environments. Despite its name, the species often produces individuals with other colourings, including albinos and melanists. Forty-five subspecies are currently recognised, which are divided into two categories: the large northern foxes, and the small, basal southern foxes of Asia and the Middle East.
Red foxes are usually together in pairs or small groups consisting of families, such as a mated pair and their young, or a male with several females having kinship ties. The young of the mated pair remain with their parents to assist in caring for new kits.The species primarily feeds on small rodents, though it may also target leporids, game birds, reptiles, invertebrates and young ungulates. Fruit and vegetable matter is also eaten sometimes. Although the red fox tends to kill smaller predators, it is vulnerable to attack from larger predators, such as wolves, coyotes, golden jackals and medium- and large-sized felines.
The species has a long history of association with humans, having been extensively hunted as a pest and furbearer for centuries, as well as being represented in human folklore and mythology. Because of its widespread distribution and large population, the red fox is one of the most important furbearing animals harvested for the fur trade
The red fox is considered a more specialised form of Vulpes than the Afghan, corsac and Bengal foxes in the direction of size and adaptation to carnivory; the skull displays much 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.
The species is Eurasian in origin, and may have evolved from either Vulpes alopecoides or the related Chinese V. chikushanensis, both of which lived during the Middle Villafranchian. The earliest fossil specimens of V. vulpes were uncovered in Barany, Hungary dating from between 3.4 and 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.
The red fox has an elongated body and relatively short limbs. The tail is longer than half the body length (70 percent of head and body length), is fluffy and reaches the ground when in a standing position. Their pupils are oval and vertically oriented. Nictitating membranes are present, but move only when the eyes are closed. The forepaws have five digits, while the hind feet have only four and lack dewclaws. They are very agile, being capable of jumping over 2-metre (6 ft 7 in) high fences, and swim well. Vixens normally have three pairs of teats, though vixens with seven, nine or ten teats are not uncommon.
The testes of males are smaller than those of Arctic foxes.
Their skulls are fairly narrow and elongated, with small braincases. Their canine teeth are relatively long. Sexual dimorphism of the skull is more pronounced than in corsac foxes, with female red foxes tending to have smaller skulls than males, with wider nasal regions and hard palates, as well as having larger canines. Their skulls are distinguished from those of dogs by their narrower muzzles, less crowded premolars, more slender canine teeth and their concave rather than convex profiles.
Red foxes are the largest species of the genus Vulpes.
However, relative to dimensions, red foxes are much lighter than similarly sized dogs of the genus Canis. Their limb bones, for example, weigh 30 percent less per unit area of bone than expected for similarly sized dogs. They display significant individual, sexual, age and geographical variation in size. On average, adults measure 35–50 cm (14–20 in) high at the shoulder and 45 to 90 cm (18 to 35 in) in body length with tails measuring 32 to 53 cm (13 to 21 in). The ears measure 7.7–12.5 cm (3–5 in) and the hind feet 12–18.5 cm (5–7 in). They weigh 2.2 to 14 kg (4.9 to 30.9 lb), with vixens typically weighing 15–20 percent less than males. Adult red foxes have skulls measuring 129–167 mm (5.1–6.6 in), while those of vixens measure 128–159 mm (5.0–6.3 in). The forefoot print measures 60 mm (2.4 in) in length and 45 mm (1.8 in) in width, while the hind foot print measures 55 mm (2.2 in) long and 38 mm (1.5 in) wide.
They trot at a speed of 6–13 km/h, and have a maximum running speed of 50 km/h. They have a stride of 25–35 cm (9.8–13.8 in) when walking at a normal pace. North American red foxes are generally lightly built, with comparatively long bodies for their mass and have a high degree of sexual dimorphism. British red foxes are heavily built, but short, while continental European red foxes are closer to the general average among red fox populations. The largest red fox on record in Great Britain was a 17.2 kg (38.1 lbs), 1.4-metre (4 ft 7 in) long male, killed in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in early 2012
The winter fur is dense, soft, silky and relatively long. For the northern foxes, the fur is very long, dense and fluffy, but is shorter, sparser and coarser in southern forms. Among northern foxes, the North American varieties generally have the silkiest guard hairs, while most Eurasian red foxes have coarser fur. There are three main colour morphs; red, silver/black and cross (see Mutations). In the typical red morph, their coats are generally bright reddish-rusty with yellowish tints. A stripe of weak, diffuse patterns of many brown-reddish-chestnut hairs occurs along the spine. Two additional stripes pass down the shoulder blades which, together with the spinal stripe, form a cross. The lower back is often a mottled silvery colour.
The flanks are lighter coloured than the back, while the chin, lower lips, throat and front of the chest are white. The remaining lower surface of the body is dark, brown or reddish. During lactation, the belly fur of vixens may turn brick red. The upper parts of the limbs are rusty reddish, while the paws are black. The frontal part of the face and upper neck is bright brownish-rusty red, while the upper lips are white. The backs of the ears are black or brownish-reddish, while the inner surface is whitish. The top of the tail is brownish-reddish, but lighter in colour than the back and flanks. The underside of the tail is pale grey with a straw-coloured tint. A black spot, the location of the supracaudal gland, is usually present at the base of the tail. The tip of the tail is white
Red foxes either establish stable home ranges within particular areas or are itinerant with no fixed abode. They use their urine to mark their territories.
A male fox raises one hind leg and his urine is sprayed forward in front of him, whereas a female fox squats down so that the urine is sprayed in the ground between the hind legs. Urine is also used to mark empty cache sites, used to store found food, as reminders not to waste time investigating them. The use of up to 12 different urination postures allows them to precisely control the position of the scent mark. Red foxes live in family groups sharing a joint territory. In favourable habitats and or areas with low hunting pressure, subordinate foxes may be present in a range. Subordinate foxes may number 1 or 2, sometimes up to 8 in one territory. These subordinates could be formerly dominant animals, but are mostly young from the previous year, who act as helpers in rearing the breeding vixen's kits.
Alternatively, their presence has been explained as being in response to temporary surpluses of food unrelated to assisting reproductive success. Non-breeding vixens will guard, play, groom, provision and retrieve kits, an example of kin selection. Red foxes may leave their families once they reach adulthood if the chances of winning a territory of their own are high. If not, they will stay with their parents, at the cost of postponing their own reproduction.
Red foxes reproduce once a year in spring. Two months prior to oestrus (typically December), the reproductive organs of vixens change shape and size. By the time they enter their oestrus period, their uterine horns double in size, and their ovaries grow 1.5–2 times larger. Sperm formation in males begins in August–September, with the testicles attaining their greatest weight in December–February.
The vixen's oestrus period lasts three weeks, during which the dog-foxes mate with the vixens for several days, often in burrows. Copulation is accompanied by a copulatory tie which may last for more than an hour. The copulatory tie occurs when the bulbus glandis at the base of the male fox's penis enlarges. The gestation period lasts 49–58 days. Though foxes are largely monogamous, DNA evidence from one population indicated large levels of polygyny, incest and mixed paternity litters. Subordinate vixens may become pregnant, but usually fail to whelp, or have their kits killed postpartum by either the dominant female or other subordinates.
The average litter size consists of four to six kits, though litters of up to 13 kits have occurred. Large litters are typical in areas where fox mortality is high. Kits are born blind, deaf and toothless, with dark brown fluffy fur. At birth, they weigh 56–110 g (2.0–3.9 oz) and measure 14.5 cm (5.7 in) in body length and 7.5 cm (3.0 in) in tail length. At birth, they are short-legged, large-headed and have broad chests. Mothers remain with the kits for 2–3 weeks, as they are unable to thermoregulate. During this period, the fathers or barren vixens feed the mothers.
Vixens are very protective of their kits, and have been known to even fight off terriers in their defence. If the mother dies before the kits are independent, the father takes over as their provider. The kit's eyes open after 13–15 days, during which time their ear canals open and their upper teeth erupt, with the lower teeth emerging 3–4 days later. Their eyes are initially blue, but change to amber at 4–5 weeks. Coat colour begins to change at 3 weeks of age, when the black eye streak appears. By one month, red and white patches are apparent on their faces. During this time, their ears erect and their muzzles elongate.
Kits begin to leave their dens and experiment with solid food brought by their parents at the age of 3–4 weeks. The lactation period lasts 6–7 weeks. Their woolly coats begin to be coated by shiny guard hairs after 8 weeks. By the age of 3–4 months, the kits are long-legged, narrow-chested and sinewy. They reach adult proportions at the age of 6–7 months. Some vixens may reach sexual maturity at the age of 9–10 months, thus bearing their first litters at one year of age. In captivity, their longevity can be as long as 15 years, though in the wild they typically do not survive past 5 years of age.
Red foxes are omnivores with a highly varied diet. In the former Soviet Union, up to 300 animal and a few dozen plant species are known to be consumed by them.
They primarily feed on small, mouse-like rodents like voles, mice, ground squirrels, hamsters, gerbils, woodchucks, pocket gophers and deer mice. Secondary prey species include birds (with passeriformes, galliformes and waterfowl predominating), leporids, porcupines, raccoons, opossums, reptiles, insects, other invertebrates and flotsam (marine mammals, fish and echinoderms). On very rare occasions, they may attack young or small ungulates. They typically target mammals up to about 3.5 kg (7.7 lb) in weight, and require 500 grams (18 oz) of food daily. Red foxes readily eat plant material and in some areas, fruit can amount to 100 percent of their diet in autumn. Commonly consumed fruits include blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, persimmons, mulberries, apples, plums, grapes and acorns.
Other plant material includes grasses, sedges and tubers.
Red foxes prefer to hunt in the early morning hours before sunrise and late evening. Although they typically forage alone, they may aggregate in resource-rich environments. When hunting mouse-like prey, they first pinpoint their prey's location by sound, then leap, sailing high above their quarry, steering in mid-air with their tails, before landing on target up to 5 metres (16 ft) away. They typically only feed on carrion in the late evening hours and at night. They are extremely possessive of their food, and will defend their catches from even dominant animals.
Red foxes may occasionally commit acts of surplus killing; during one breeding season, four foxes were recorded to have killed circa 200 black-headed gulls each, with peaks during dark, windy hours when flying conditions were unfavourable. Losses to poultry and penned game birds can be substantial because of this. Red foxes seem to dislike the taste of moles, but will nonetheless catch them alive and present them to their kits as playthings.
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