Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Foxes are canines and belong to the family Canidae, which includes 36 species of wolves, coyotes, jackals, domestic or wild dogs, and foxes.
- Foxes have the broadest range of any canine, living in forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts, tundras, and cities.
- They are omnivores, eating both meat and vegetation, and primarily hunt alone at night.
- Foxes are generally not dangerous to humans, but can carry diseases like rabies and may pose a threat to small pets and livestock.
- In folklore, foxes are often admired for their intelligence, cunning, and ability to escape conflict without violence.
Foxes– you know them, you love them. They have the broadest range of land mammals and live on every continent except Antarctica. But what exactly are they? Are foxes canines?
Slender and agile as a feline, they have a dog’s face and a bushier tail than any squirrel. They may not look like your typical canine, but that’s precisely what they are. Foxes are canines, through and through.
Let’s take a closer look at why foxes are canines and if anything sets them apart from their canine relatives.
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What is a Canine?
Canines, or canids, belong to the family Canidae. This family includes 36 species of wolves, coyotes, jackals, domestic or wild dogs, and foxes. Typically, canines have long, skinny legs, long snouts, pointed ears, and bushy tails.
Of course, if you’ve ever seen a pug, you’ll realize this description is only sometimes accurate.
But what makes a canine a canine? The answer lies in dentition, a fancy word meaning how teeth are arranged in the mouth. Most canids have 42 teeth, 4 of which are canines, their namesake. In fact, the word canine comes from the Latin word Caninus meaning “of dog, dog-like.”
But wait, don’t cats have canine teeth? And bears? And what about people? Don’t they have canine teeth too? So why aren’t they considered canines?
It’s true; many carnivores (meat eaters) have canine teeth. But their teeth are arranged differently than canid teeth. For one thing, cats and humans have fewer teeth than canids (cats have 30 teeth and humans have 32). But more importantly than teeth arrangement, they do not share a common ancestor with dogs.
Sharing a common ancestor is the most critical factor in classifying a species. Different animals may have similar characteristics, but that does not mean they are the same. It all comes down to whether or not they share a common ancestor.
In short, all canids, be it a wolf, dog, coyote, or fox, descended from the same common ancestor.
The Canine Connection: Why Foxes Belong to the Canidae Family
Now that we have a better understanding of what canines are, let’s look at foxes and how they fit in with their canine relatives.
Foxes have the broadest range of any canine and the widest range of any land mammal (excluding humans). More specifically, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) claims vast stretches of territory worldwide.
Generally, foxes are smaller than their other canine relatives. The red fox is the largest fox species, weighing around 31 lbs (14 kg), and is slightly less than 2 feet tall from paws to shoulder.
The fennec fox (Vulpes zerda) is the smallest fox and canine. These tiny creatures live in the deserts of North Africa. They weigh a mere 3.5 lbs (1.5 kg) and are only 7 inches tall.
The Key Role of Fox Teeth: How Dentition Defines Canines
Because the arrangement of teeth is crucial in making a canine a canine, let’s take a closer look at a fox’s teeth.
Baby foxes only have 28 teeth. These are known as milk teeth or deciduous teeth. Deciduous comes from the Latin word deciduus, which means “tending to fall, falling.”
As foxes grow, they lose their milk teeth and replace them with 42 adult or permanent teeth. Adult teeth comprise 4 canines (two on the top, two on the bottom), 12 incisor teeth, 16 premolar teeth, and 10 molar teeth.
Canine teeth are feared and revered as the dangerous killing teeth of all canids. Canines are the largest teeth in a fox’s mouth. They are long, pointed, and used for holding onto and killing prey.
In addition, canine teeth tend to interlock when a fox’s mouth is closed; they must chew up and down rather than grind side to side like some other animals.
The incisors are at the front of a fox’s mouth between their fangs. Incisor comes from the Latin word incidere, which means “to cut,” and that’s precisely what they do. They function to cut and tear into the flesh of a fox’s prey.
The premolars sit between the canines and molars of a fox. Think of these as transitional teeth that cut food like the incisors and grind food like the molars.
Finally, the molars sit at the back of a fox’s jaw. These teeth grind food down into small, swallowable chunks.
Foxes’ Omnivorous Diet: The Food Choices of These Canines
So what do foxes use their teeth for anyway? Well, for eating meat, of course! But is that all?
It’s a common misconception that all canines are carnivores. Wolves, for example, are classified as carnivores. But not all canids are.
Foxes are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and vegetation. No fox would avoid eating a rabbit, rat, bird, or other small animals. But when meat is scarce, they are just as happy eating berries, greens, and fungi!
Foxes are also expert scavengers and will knock over trash cans to take any food scraps thrown away by humans.
Unique Hunting Behavior: How Foxes Set Themselves Apart from Other Canines
Now that we know what a fox’s diet consists of, let’s look at how they hunt and find their food.
Unlike other canids, foxes primarily hunt alone. They are opportunistic hunters, meaning they don’t lie around waiting for food to come to them as ambush predators do. Instead, they go out and search for it.
Foxes mostly hunt at night, but their hunting times can vary greatly. They hunt by trotting around their territory, looking for any potential food.
This can mean stumbling across a rabbit in a cornfield, a dead deer in a forest, trash bags filled with leftover food in a suburban development, or berries in someone’s garden. Anything goes for a fox on the hunt.
Foxes also scream when patrolling their territory. If you’ve ever heard what sounds like a woman screaming somewhere outside in the night, chances are it was just a fox. The point is– their screams are horrifying!
But their screams serve a purpose, or rather two. The first is to secure territory and scare off competitors. Typically, a male fox will patrol the perimeter of his territory and scream at intervals. Their scream alerts other males that the region is claimed and there will be trouble if they come closer.
The second purpose is to attract a mate, because nothing says romance like a blood-curdling scream in the night. Usually, female foxes scream to attract a male mate to them.
Interestingly, foxes are known to be monogamous, meaning they mate with one partner for life. However, a pair only sometimes sticks together.
For example, a female may need to call her partner back to her if the couple is separated. If that’s the case, the male can recognize the sound of his partner’s scream and will only respond to her and no one. Talk about commitment!
If you want to see how a fox hunts in the snow, check out this video:
If you want to hear a fox scream, check out this video:
Adaptable Dwellers: Exploring the Diverse Habitats of Foxes Around the World
We’ve already noted that foxes live on almost every continent. But what specific habitats do they inhabit?
The quickest answer– everywhere! Foxes are incredible in their ability to adapt to different environments. They can thrive in forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts, tundras, and even cities and urban developments. However, some species of fox are better suited for life in specific environments.
The fennec fox, for example, is adapted to live in the blazing deserts of North Africa. These tiny foxes have huge ears, which help them regulate their body temperature, so they don’t overheat. Their large ears also help them locate potential prey buried beneath the sand.
The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) is best suited for life in the Arctic Circle. These foxes have beautiful white coats that blend in perfectly with snow.
Not only that, but in the summer, when the tundra is free of snow, the Arctic fox sheds its white coat. Then it adopts a brownish-gray coat, camouflaging them amidst tundra shrubs.
Red foxes are the most adaptable to any environment. Most notably, they now live in cities and other urban settings. They take shelter in abandoned buildings or other nooks and crannies with little human traffic. They feed on mice, rats, birds, and, of course, human garbage.
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Are Foxes Dangerous?
Since foxes live in our cities and neighborhoods, do we have anything to fear?
Generally speaking, no. We have nothing to fear from foxes. Healthy foxes keep to themselves and will only become aggressive if cornered or threatened. The golden rule for all animals applies to foxes as well: if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
However, foxes can carry diseases like rabies. Rabid foxes may become aggressive without provocation, but even this is rare.
By far, foxes pose the greatest threat to small pets and livestock. It’s common for foxes to raid chicken coops and bunny pens. Luckily, foxes tend to leave pet dogs and cats alone because they can inflict just as much damage to the fox as the fox can to them.
Foxes are unlike their coyote relatives, who hunt for pet dogs, and cats and have even attacked children and adults (although this is rare).
All in all, foxes are little threat to human beings. Instead, they prefer keeping to themselves and staying out of sight.
Fabled Foxes: A Glimpse into Their Rich Cultural History and Folklore
Foxes have a rich history in traditional folklore worldwide. In ancient Mesopotamia, foxes were the sacred messengers of the goddess Ninhursag.
In Scandinavian mythology, foxes are cunning tricksters able to outsmart ferocious wolves and mighty bears.
In Peru, the fox is considered a warrior, but not in the traditional sense. Instead of relying on strength and bravado in battle, foxes use their intelligence and cunning to succeed. Furthermore, in Celtic mythology, the fox is seen as a guide for spirits entering the afterlife.
In folk tradition, wolves and coyotes are typically villainous characters (think of the Big Bad Wolf or the trickster coyote).
On the other hand, people admire foxes for their intelligence, cunning, and ability to escape conflict without violence.
Foxes aren’t always the heroes of folklore, however. For example, in Asia, foxes can either be helpful spirits or harmful seducers.
In Chinese mythology, the Huli Jing (literally, “fox spirit) is a spirit that takes the form of a fox. The Huli Jing can also shapeshift into a woman and seduce men. Huli Jing is a term still used in China today, negatively referring to a mistress or seductive woman.
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What do I do if a fox approaches me?
It’s doubtful that a fox would ever approach you. They are shy and wary creatures and will often run away from you before you even see them.
But on the off chance that a fox does approach you, what should you do? It’s simple– clap, shout, scream, stamp your feet, wave your arms, do anything that makes you look intimidating to the fox. If you do these things, the fox should get the message and run away.
Furthermore, if you notice a fox den nearby, stay clear of it, as a fox may turn aggressive if you get too close to its home and young.
Also, always make sure that the fox has a path of escape. In other words, never corner a fox and make it feel trapped.
Can I feed a wild fox?
Never feed a wild fox. Feeding a fox can be dangerous for both you and the animal.
For one thing, the fox will see you as a steady food source and stop hunting for itself. They may also lose their fear of humans which might lead to trouble if they approach people who don’t feed them. Lastly, if you try to hand-feed them, they may bite you!
As with all wildlife, it’s best to respect these animals and give them the space they deserve.
Do foxes hibernate?
No, foxes don’t hibernate. It’s common to see them in the winter.
Their coats get thicker to protect them from the cold. Because foxes have a diverse diet, they can find something to eat even in the coldest months. They also live in dens which serve as a warm shelter against the cold.
The red fox and gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) also breed in the winter. The gray fox begins breeding in December and continues until February. The red fox begins slightly later in January and continues until February.
Remember, if you hear a fox screaming on a cold winter’s night, chances are it’s just seeking out its mate.
Can foxes climb?
Yes, but some species are better than others. The gray fox, for example, is a specialized climber. Like cats, they have semi-retractable claws which are sharp and hooked. They can also rotate their ankle bones like squirrels can, which helps when descending from a tree.
Their special claws allow them to climb and set them apart from other canids, most of which cannot climb or aren’t skilled at it. Gray foxes will often climb trees to escape predators like coyotes or wolves.
Gray foxes are arboreal, meaning they live in trees. They make their dens high up in hollowed trees and have even been known to live in abandoned hawk nests.
Can foxes see in the dark?
Yes, they can see in the dark. Like cats, foxes have a special layer of tissue in their eyes called tapetum lucidum. This layer reflects light into the retina, increasing the amount of light picked up by photoreceptors. In other words, it’s like built-in night vision goggles.
Tapetum lucidum is also why some animals’ eyes glow green when a light is shined into them. This phenomenon is known as eyeshine. However, human eyes do not shine green when light is shined into them. This is because humans lack the tapetum lucidum layer.
Although they can see in the dark, foxes don’t have the best vision. They have a hard time seeing still objects and cannot see very far away. However, they have an excellent sense of hearing and smell. They can rotate their ears 150 degrees to hone in on prey. And their sense of smell allows them to quickly detect prey and potential predators.
Can foxes be pets?
Yes, but there is some controversy about keeping a pet fox.
Only 15 states allow pet foxes in the United States. They are not fully domesticated like dogs, so they make unpredictable pets at best. They are loud, hyper, and destructive and frequently mark their territory with strong odors.
If you keep a pet fox, it should not be kept indoors but should have a large pen outdoors where they have plenty of room to run around.
All in all, foxes are a lot of responsibility to keep as pets and are not like domestic dogs. They have different needs and different requirements for a healthy life.
If you want a pet fox, do your due diligence on how to care for them. Be sure to check state and local laws, too, as sometimes you require a permit to have one as a pet!