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What Is a Fox? (Here’s What We Know About Foxes)

Foxes are found in many parts of the world, but what is a fox? 

Foxes are much like what you see in cartoons. They are usually shown as sneaky, cunning, and sly animals.

However,  there is more to foxes than what we hear in those stories.

So what are foxes?

This article will explore what it means to be a fox, fox behavior, what they eat, where they live, and more.

What Is A Fox?

Foxes are small to medium-sized carnivores that live in the wild. They have long bushy tails and upright, pointy ears. They are also characterized by pointed snouts, relatively short legs, and they also often look similar to dogs. 

Foxes can be found all over the world, making them one of the most widespread mammals on earth.

Fox Scientific Classification

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Canidae
Genus Vulpes

Vulpes is the genus of the most common fox species that belongs under the family Canidae. There are more genera (kinds of foxes) that you will see later in this article, but only those belonging to Vulpes are considered true foxes. 

Under the family of Canidae, you also find domestic dogs and other dog-like carnivores and omnivores like wolves, dingoes, and coyotes. 

That is why foxes look very similar to them: they are closely related.

Enchanting red fox family resting in green summer forest near den

How Many Species of Foxes Are There?

Foxes are a type of wild canine. There are 30 species of foxes found all over the world but only 12 are considered to be true foxes. These 12 all belong to the genus Vulpes. 

The Twelve Species of True Foxes

Members of the Vulpes genus of the Canidae family share a few characteristics that distinguish them from the members of the genus Canis

The members of Vulpes have flatter skulls and smaller sizes than the other members of the Canis genus. They also have tail tips that are different colors than that of their bodies, and black markings in between their noses and eyes. 

These are the scientific names of the species of what are considered to be true type foxes:

  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
  • Fennec fox (Vulpes zerda)
  • Bengal fox (Vulpes bengalensis)
  • Blanford’s fox (Vulpes cana)
  • Cape fox (Vulpes chama)
  • Corsac Fox (Vulpes corsac)
  • Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata)
  • Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) – Also known as Polar or Snow fox
  • Kit fox (Vulpes macrotis)
  • Pale fox (Vulpes pallida)
  • Rüpell’s Fox (Vulpes rueppellii)
  • Swift fox (Vulpes velox)

What Do Foxes Eat?

Foxes are omnivorous animals. This means that they can eat a wide variety of foods from meat to insects to small fruits. Almost anything they can find. 

They are known to eat small birds and grass but they can also scavenge if food sources are very scarce. 

Foxes are opportunistic hunters. 

Red fox with mouse in mouth on glade in summer sunlight

This is one of the reasons why the foxes that venture into urban areas are often found scrounging around for scraps of food and other trash in the garbage bins. 

While foxes don’t become dependent on humans who give them food, it’s generally not advised to feed foxes regularly. This practice might result in the foxes becoming less wary of people and confident in approaching homesteads.

Where Do Foxes Live? (Territories & Regions)

Foxes, in general, are very adaptable animals. They live in almost any kind of environment, from arid deserts to cold Arctic regions. 

Some species of foxes are native to their habitats while others have been introduced by humans and have adapted to their new environments.

Foxes in North America

According to this literature review[1],  there are native and non-native populations of red foxes that occur in North America. 

The native populations were recorded in areas that included Canada, the northern United States as well as habitats of higher altitudes of the northwestern United States.

The non-native populations of red foxes were introduced by the European settlers as they established themselves on the US east coast. 

Later non-native populations of foxes moved further inland. They started being recorded in the central parts of the US and then upward well into the Canadian border.

Foxes in South America

There are no true foxes in South America. However, there are a number of close cousins in the Canidae family that look very similar to them. They are from the Lycalopex genus and have a wide distribution from Brazil down to Argentina. 

Foxes in Europe

The red fox’s (Vulpes vulpes) range and territories practically cover most of continental Europe. There is a large concentration of red foxes in Great Britain and their territories are prone to overlap with human settlements.

Foxes in Africa

The Cape fox (V. chama) prefers the open grasslands, scrubs, and plains in and around South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. 

Rüppell’s (V. rueppelli) and fennec (V. zerda) foxes thrive in the Saharan regions of Africa. 

The pale fox (V. pallida) likes the arid habitats found in between the semi-desert borders of the Sahara and the tropical parts of Africa.

Foxes in Asia

The size of the Asian continent brings with it a wide range of territories for foxes with varying climates, from desert-like regions to much colder places. 

There are two variants or subspecies of red fox in Japan:

  • the Ezo (V. vulpes schrencki) that is distributed in the colder northern regions of Hokkaido.
  • The Sakhalin islands and the hondo kitsune (V. vulpes japonica), which are found in Honshu and Kyushu. 

Other foxes found in Asia include: 

  • The Bengal fox (V. bengalensis) is common in the Indian subcontinent. 
  • The Tibetan fox (V. ferrilata) lives in the Himalayas and the colder regions of Nepal, India, and Bhutan. 
  • The corsac fox (V. corsac) lives in mountain areas and grasslands of Afghanistan to parts of central Asia like Mongolia and Manchurian China. 

Blanford’s foxes call parts of the Middle East home.

Foxes in Australia/Oceania

The foxes in Australia aren’t native to the region. 

They were brought by British settlers who felt homesick and wanted a taste of home in this new land. 

A pair of red foxes were introduced to the New Zealand wildlife but did not take root as the breeding pair died before reproducing.[2]

There were no attempts done after that as they were wary of the situation in the nearby Australian colony where they were a possible threat to sheep.

Australia’s populations of foxes were introduced in several areas of the continent for the sport of fox hunting.

Foxes in the Arctic Region

The isolation of Antarctica and the prevailing very harsh, cold environment could very well be the reasons why there are no foxes there. It is not the case, however, in the similar environments of the Arctic in the northern hemisphere. 

Permafrost has connected mainland Europe to the Arctic tundra biome which enabled the foxes to migrate and evolve into the Arctic fox (V. lagopus) species.

Habitats of Foxes

The habitats of foxes are very varied, as fox species are found all over the world. 

The red fox alone can be found in forests, mountain areas, woodlands, patches of grasslands, and wetlands while other species of foxes can survive cold conditions year-round. 

Foxes are even found in deserts and semi-arid regions of Africa.

Domesticated Foxes

There is a population of domesticated foxes that were bred in Soviet-era Russia to understand domestication traits in animals. 

This was a study[3] conducted by Dmitri Belyaev and his protege Lyudmila Trut in Novosibirsk, Siberia. 

They used the tamest silver foxes (a variant of the red fox) on the farm for the initial population. 

Strictly focusing on the tameness of the foxes, he chose the top 10% of the tamest foxes of each generation to reproduce next. 

The domestication traits started showing as early as the sixth generation. 

In less than a decade, they produced foxes that could be categorized as domesticated. 

They manifested affection for humans: whined when their caretakers left them and wagged their tails when the humans approached. 

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, standing and Arctic Fox, Vulpes lagopus, lying, isolated on white

The domestication study continues to this day where Lyudmila Trut is now the lead investigator.

Other foxes are kept as pets but they are mostly considered socialized only because they have been rescued, hand-fed, and socialized with humans so much that they could not be returned to the wild.

Foxes in Captivity

Foxes in captivity (mostly found in zoos) adapt to the habitats given to them by their keepers. They live in enclosures where scientists can observe their behavior in captivity.

It’s usually not a good idea to have a pet fox. They don’t make good indoor pets. Only 15 states in the U.S. allow you to own a pet fox.

fox in captivity

The Ecology and Behavior of Foxes

Foxes are most common in areas where open terrain, thick cover, and water sources converge. The common red fox has the widest habitat range of all fox species. 

Some fox species, like the Arctic fox, are nocturnal while a few are crepuscular, like the fennec fox. 

Nocturnal animals hunt at night while crepuscular animals become active during the twilight and early dawn hours.

Related: When are foxes most active?

Foxes are very flexible when it comes to behavior and habitat. Research on their feeding ecology has shown that fox populations can change their behavior according to habitat conditions and availability of food. [4]

Foxes have a variety of dens that they use for sleeping and raising their young. 

Red fox, vulpes vulpes, cubs sitting by the den.

The den is an underground chamber in which the pregnant vixen (female fox) gives birth. Dens are usually dug by the kits themselves (baby foxes) when they’re old enough, but vixens will occasionally enlarge an old badger set or woodchuck burrow. 

One fox may have several dens that are used at different times of the year – for example, a summer den, and a winter den.

Foxes mark their territories with scent – they will urinate or defecate on brushes, fence posts, rocks, trees, or buildings that are within their territorial boundary. 

Territorial scent marking helps foxes to avoid conflict with each other by establishing their boundaries. 

Related: Do foxes smell?

They also resort to other tactics to defend their territory like barking. They can have aggressive encounters if another fox of the same sex intrudes on the territory.

The size of foxes’ territory differs depending on a few factors (mostly availability of food). They have smaller geographical territories when they overlap with urban human settlements.

The average red fox home range is between 1-11 square miles.[4]

Do Foxes Hunt for Their Food?

Foxes are predators, skilled at stalking prey when hunting. They often hunt when there is little light available to remain hidden while approaching their prey. 

Their hunting behavior is influenced by food availability. In springtime, when food is scarce after winter, foxes hunt for rodents and other small mammals. 

In late summer as rabbits and hares become more active, fox hunting changes. Now the fox will hunt those larger prey rather than smaller prey. 

The red fox can sprint at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour so it can catch most prey it encounters.

fox eating

Fox Predators

In areas where the fox shares a geographical range with other large carnivores, they can serve as a food source.

The most common predators that eat foxes are:

  • Wolves
  • Coyotes
  • Bears
  • Large birds of prey (like eagles)
  • Some owls
  • Large cats (leopards, mountain lions, and bobcats)

Are Foxes Friendly?

Foxes are friendly – as long as you don’t disturb or threaten them. Foxes will defend themselves, and their family, from intruders. Injured foxes will turn aggressive faster.

They do pose a risk to pets and property in urban areas. They are considered pests. They may also bite humans.

They rummage through trash bins as these present easy access to leftover food or possible rodents. Farmers consider them pests as well since they feed on chickens, eggs, and small newborn farm animals.

Happy fox

The Biology of Foxes

While foxes are solitary, they mate in pairs. Some foxes are monogamous, meaning they mate for life. Others mate seasonally and stay in pairs throughout a single season.

The Arctic fox in particular mates for life and are monogamous since their habitats make looking for mates harder for them.

Some foxes live in small family groups that consist of:

  • Several young female foxes
  • The dominant female vixen (which is the only breeding female)
  • A single male

The young females in the group aren’t ready for reproduction yet and will leave when they mature. 

Fox Babies (Kits)

Fox babies are called pups, kits, or cubs. A vixen will give birth once a year, often around March. Gestation of vixens lasts around 50-55 days. 

The females can breed once a year with litter sizes going from 1 to 12 pups. Average litter sizes are 2 to 8 pups. 

The other non-mating females in the family group help in raising the kits. 

baby fox on the grass

Life Span

The average lifespan of wild foxes ranges between 2-6 years. The lifespan of foxes can be difficult to determine though, as several factors can affect this, including habitat and diet. 

Those in captivity can live considerably longer in the absence of natural predators. They will also receive considerable care and medical care.

Anatomy of Foxes

The average weight of red foxes is between 3 to 14 kg and their body length is 12-35 inches (30-90 cm). Their tails can reach a length of about 21 inches (55 cm).

The fox is small to a midsize mammal with flat skulls and bone structures that are like those of most other mammals. They have pelvic bones, finger bones, and vertebrae. In total, they have about 170 bones.

Foxes’ dental formula is 3/3 1/1 4/4 2/3[5]. The tooth row is more than half the length of the skull. The premolars are simple and pointed, except for the upper fourth premolars, the carnassials. The molar structure emphasizes crushing.

On their feet, they have sharp, retractable claws, which they use to climb and dig.

Fox Trapping and Hunting

Today, fox hunting is legally practiced in several countries including Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Ireland among others. 

Fox hunting usually involves several hunting dogs. 

A series of specially bred foxes often referred to as a “bag” are released to be hunted either one at a time or in pairs.

fox hunting in the forest

Fox hunting dates back several centuries in Britain. 

Hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland in 2002, and is now only practiced by a small number of groups that are considered to be trail hunts.

As the red fox adapts well to any environment, fox trapping is legal in most of the areas where they have large populations. Fox trapping is even considered to be a sport and a way to control their numbers where they are pests. 

This is a humane way to capture foxes that are causing problems in urban areas. They are caught using box traps which allow them to be transported away for either relocation or euthanasia.

Conclusion on “What Are Foxes?”

Foxes are the small carnivorous canids from the genus Vulpes that have remarkable adaptability. They are now considered to be the most widespread species of carnivores across the globe. 

The ever-growing needs of humans certainly will threaten their survival as human settlements continue to encroach into foxes’ natural habitats.

FAQs

Are Foxes Dangerous?

Foxes do not pose any immediate danger to humans. They are generally very wary of human interaction. However, foxes that are injured or cornered can bite. They are known carriers of rabies and other diseases so it is best to avoid them altogether.

Related: Are foxes dangerous?

Are Foxes Smart?

Foxes are considered to be one of the smartest and most intelligent animals in the world. They are resourceful in surviving in extreme weather and can outwit other animals that threaten them and their young.

Are Foxes Dogs?

Foxes are not dogs but both species belong to the same family of carnivores, the Canidae. Except for the small population of silver foxes in a Russian experiment, no fox species have ever been domesticated by humans.

Can Foxes Swim?

While foxes generally try to avoid water, they can and will swim if the situation calls for it. They will also swim if the only available food source is in a body of water, or to escape from predators. Foxes swim with their heads above water and paddle their legs to propel their bodies, just like dogs do.

Can Foxes Climb Trees?

Yes, foxes can climb trees. Foxes have evolved into elite hunters with multiple different ways to catch their prey. They can climb trees to catch birds and eat their eggs in nests. They can also climb trees to avoid predators.

What’s a Female Fox Called?

A female fox is called a vixen. The female counterpart to foxes in Old English was “fyxen” and, which then changed to “fixen” in Middle English, and ended up being pronounced with a v from a southern English dialect.

About Dennis Stapleton

Dennis Stapleton has a passion for animals, especially dogs, and their relatives. He’s intrigued by their social structure and loves to write and teach about the world's most popular pet animal.