Ecology and behaviour: Basic facts

What is a fox?

Close up of a wolf
Grey wolf, a member of the dog family

The scientific name of red foxes or foxes, as they are commonly known, is Vulpes vulpes. Foxes are a member of the dog family, the Canidae and for this reason they are known as canids.

Wolves, coyotes, arctic foxes and the domestic dog are also canids. The canids are carnivores (meat eaters) but their diet is generalised and opportunistic, adapting to whatever foods are available locally. This is why foxes are so abundant and widely distributed, and historically why the wolf was so widespread across the northern hemisphere, in habitats ranging from deserts to the arctic.

What does a fox look like?

A fox sitting on a lawn
Red fox; © The Fox Website

Like all canids, foxes have a rather slender appearance, pointed ears and an elongated muzzle. The coat is generally reddish (hence the name red fox) with the back of the ears and the front of the legs black and the throat and belly from white to grey.

There is a genetic mutation with an absence of guard hairs, known as the Samson fox. Very rarely white individuals have been recorded and, in North America, black foxes are relatively common. Black foxes are known as silver foxes as the hair on the rump is tipped with silver and this stands out well against the remaining black fur. A variant that is only present in North America is the cross fox. Cross foxes have a prominent black stripe along the spine and a stripe along the shoulders at a right angle, which gives the appearance of being a cross.

How big is a fox?

Comparison of a fox with an alsatian dog and a cat
Comparison of a fox with an alsatian dog (bigger) and a cat (smaller); © Guy Troughton, with permission, from Urban Foxes by Stephen Harris and Phil Baker, published by Whittet Books. Click on image for bigger version.

If seen from a distance, the fox might appear as a large animal but in fact, foxes are rather small. Foxes are medium-sized canids, a male weighing 4-8 kilogrammes and a female 4-6 kilogrammes. The length of head and body combined is about 67-72 centimetres in males and about 62-68 centimetres in females. The tail, which is about 40-44 centimetres in males and 37-41 centimetres in females, represents about a third of the total body length of a fox. The body weight varies in different regions and increases from south to north. In North America foxes tend to be smaller than in Europe, so that some researchers have proposed that North American foxes are a different species. In Britain, an average fox is a little bigger than a pet cat.

How long do foxes live?

Captive foxes can live up to about 14 years, comparable to domestic dogs. In the wild however, foxes rarely live more than a couple of years. In rural areas where lethal fox control is applied, up to 80% of a fox population is less than one year old. In Bristol and London, about half of the population is one year of age and only about 3% is older than five years.

Where can foxes be found?

Link to an interactive map of the fox population distribution in Britain

Thanks to their adaptability, foxes are found throughout most of the northern hemisphere and were introduced to Australia. The National Biodiversity Network holds maps showing the distributions of many British species, including the fox. You can find an interactive map by clicking on the picture to the right (link to an external site). More information on fox geographic distribution and various fox populations can be found on the population pages.

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.