fox (in zoology)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

fox (in zoology)

fox, carnivorous mammal of the dog family, found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere. It has a pointed face, short legs, long, thick fur, and a tail about one half to two thirds as long as the head and body, depending on the species. Solitary most of the year, foxes do not live in dens except in the breeding season; they sleep concealed in grasses or thickets, their tails curled around them for warmth. During the breeding season a fox pair establishes a den, often in a ground burrow made by another animal, in which the young are raised; the male hunts for the family. The young are on their own after about five months; the adults probably find new mates each season.

Foxes feed on insects, earthworms, small birds and mammals, eggs, carrion, and vegetable matter, especially fruits. Unlike other members of the dog family, which run down their prey, foxes usually hunt by stalking and pouncing. They are known for their raids on poultry but are nonetheless very beneficial to farmers as destroyers of rodents.

Foxes are occasionally preyed upon by larger carnivores, such as wolves and bobcats, as well as by humans and their dogs; birds of prey may capture the young. Despite extensive killing of foxes, most species continue to flourish. In Europe this is due in part to the regulatory laws passed for the benefit of hunters. Mounted foxhunting, with dogs, became popular in the 14th cent. and was later introduced into the Americas; special hunting dogs, called foxhounds, have been bred for this sport. Great Britain banned foxhunting in which the hounds kill the fox in 2005.

Types of Foxes

Most fox species belong to the red fox group, genus Vulpes. The common red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is found in Eurasia, N Africa, and North America. It is hunted for its valuable fur and, especially in England, for sport. An extremely wary animal, it is skilled at evading traps and dodging pursuers. There are many local varieties; European red foxes are larger than those of North America, which average about 23 in. (58 cm) in body length, stand about 16 in. (41 cm) at the shoulder, and weigh about 5 to 10 lb (2.3–4.6 kg). North American red foxes inhabit areas of forest mixed with open country, from the Arctic Ocean to the S United States. Although most active at night, they are also seen by day. Coat color varies, but the tail is always tipped with white, and the legs, feet, and tips of the ears are always black. The rest of the coat is commonly reddish; black, silver, and cross (reddish, with a dark, cross-shaped region on back and shoulders) are among variations that may appear in any red fox litter. Silver fox pelts, black with white-tipped outer hairs, are much in demand; many are derived from animals raised on fox farms. From the silver fox, breeders have developed a platinum fox, whose pale gray pelt is highly valued, and (in Siberia) a tame, domesticated breed.

The kit and swift foxes (V. velox and V. macrotis, respectively) are small, swift, pale gray or yellowish foxes, found on the deserts and plains of the W United States and N Mexico. Their numbers have been greatly diminished by trapping and poisoning, and they are now rare in many parts of their range. Other Vulpes species are found in Asia and Africa.

The gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, is a New World species; it is the only fox that sometimes climbs trees. Found from the N United States to N South America, this fox is slightly larger, on the average, than the North American red fox. Its coat is salt-and-pepper above and buff-colored below; the upper side of its tail is black. Gray foxes inhabit woods, swamps, and brushy areas that afford them cover; they are more retiring and more strictly nocturnal in their habits than red foxes. Their fur is of little value.

The arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, is found on arctic coasts and islands; it has a circumpolar distribution. Characterized by short, rounded ears and heavily furred feet, all arctic foxes are brown to gray in summer; some turn pure white in winter, while others, called blue foxes, turn bluish gray. The blue fox, a natural variant that is more common in some areas than in others, is highly valued for its pelt, and breeders have developed all-blue strains. Although their diet includes small animals and plant matter, arctic foxes are chiefly scavengers, feeding especially on the remains of polar bears' kills.

The smallest fox is the fennec, or desert fox (Fennecus zerda), of the Sahara and Arabian deserts. An excellent burrower, it has enormous ears and a fluffy pale cream coat. Other foxes (sometimes called zorros) are found in South America.

Classification

Foxes are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Canidae.

Bibliography

See H. G. Lloyd, The Red Fox (1980); J. D. Henry, Red Fox: The Catlike Canine (1986).

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