Ecology and behaviour: Communication

Posture

Grey fox gaping to communicate aggression
Grey fox gaping to communicate aggression

Foxes communicate with each other in a variety of ways. As in the domestic dog and many other carnivores, many different facial expressions and body postures are used. Friendly greetings such as tail wagging are used when meeting family members, and aggressive behaviour may be directed towards intruding neighbouring foxes.

During the mating season and during the dispersal season, fights are common and sometimes foxes are killed.

Sound

Red fox gaping to communicate aggression
Red fox gaping to communicate aggression; © Everything is permuted

Foxes are mostly silent animals but this does not mean they do not have a broad repertoire of sounds. A wide range of calls is used from cubs' small barks asking for their mother's attention, to warning calls, to barks and screams performed to locate another fox or a mate.

Calls are made all year around but most people hear foxes calling in winter, perhaps because there is less vegetation to muffle the sound.

Smell

Close up of two foxes one is sniffing the other's ear
Foxes use smell to communicate; © C. Soulsbury

Urine and faeces are used to communicate to other group members and to neighbouring foxes. For example, urine is used to mark their home range (the space where an animal lives) and both urine and faeces are used to signal some specific state, such as when females are fertile. The use of smell to communicate information to other animals is called scent marking. Faeces in particular are placed in conspicuous spots where they can easily be found by other foxes, such as on objects, paths, gates or even on food remains.

Foxes also possess various scent glands on their tail, faces, foot pads and just inside their anus. They can either rub themselves or expel the contents of the glands against some objects. They also use their saliva to mark objects, particularly vegetation.

Senses

The senses of foxes are very different from our own. The main sense with which we perceive the world is sight. We cannot know for sure which is the most important sense to a fox, but both hearing and smell must be important. Their acute hearing is used to hunt small mammals and insects, for example by locating a mouse by the sounds it makes and then pouncing up to 2-3 metres to catch it. Smell is used to communicate but also to locate food. Foxes can detect food in a sealed bag or underground, as any person who has had a buried pet dug up will be able to confirm.

Question & answer

TopCan foxes recognise each other's smell?

We don't know for sure, but the research done shows that foxes probably use urine and faeces to tell whether there are intruders in an area and therefore it is possible that they can also recognise the smell of familiar individuals. We do not understand the 'code' of scent marking but we know that there are seasonal differences in this code and that the scents of males and females differ.

References

  • Harris, S. & Baker, P. (2001) Urban foxes. Whittet Books, Suffolk.
  • Larivière, S. & Pasitschniak-Arts, M. (1996) Vulpes vulpes. Mammalian Species 537, 1-11.
  • Lloyd, H.G. (1980) The red fox. Batsford, London.
  • Nowak, R. M. (2005) Walker's carnivores of the world. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.