Red Fox Facts

Scientific Name: Vulpes vulpes

The red fox is widely distributed worldwide.
The red fox is widely distributed worldwide. Nikographer [Jon] / Getty Images

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is well-known for its luxurious fur coat and playful antics. Foxes are canids, so they are related to dogs, wolves, and coyotes. However, adaptation to a nocturnal life has given the red fox some feline traits, as well.

Fast Facts: Red Fox

  • Scientific Name: Vulpes vulpes
  • Common Name: Red fox
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 56-78 inches
  • Weight: 9-12 pounds
  • Lifespan: 5 years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: Northern Hemisphere and Australia
  • Population: Millions
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

Despite their common name, not all red foxes are red. The red fox's three main color morphs are red, silver/black, and cross. A red fox has rusty fur with darker legs, white belly, and sometimes a white-tipped tail.

Males (called dogs) and females (called vixens) exhibit slight sexual dimorphism. Vixens are slightly smaller than dogs, with smaller skulls and larger canine teeth. On average, a male measures 54 to 78 inches and weighs 10 to 12 pounds, while a female ranges from 56 to 74 inches in length and weighs 9 to 10 pounds.

The red fox has an elongated body and a tail that is over half its body length. The fox has pointed ears, long canine teeth, and eyes with vertical slits and a nictitating membrane (like a cat). There are five digits on each of the front paws and four on the hind paws. The fox's skeleton is similar to a dog's, but the fox is more lightly built, with a pointed muzzle and slender canine teeth.

Habitat and Distribution

The red fox ranges across the Northern Hemisphere into Central America, North Africa, and Asia. It does not live in Iceland, in some deserts, or in the extreme polar regions of the Arctic and Siberia. The red fox was introduced to Australia in the 1830s. The species is banned from New Zealand under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act of 1996.

Where the soil permits, foxes dig burrows, where they live and bear their young. They also take abandoned burrows made by other animals or sometimes share with them. For example, foxes and badgers will live together in a form of mutualism where the fox provides scraps of food brought back to the den while the badger keeps the area clean.

Red fox distribution
Red fox distribution. Zoologist, Wikimedia Commons

Diet

The red fox is omnivorous. Its preferred prey includes rodents, rabbits, and birds, but it will take small ungulates, such as lambs. It also eats fish, insects, lizards, amphibians, small invertebrates, fruit, and vegetables. Urban red foxes readily accept pet food.

Foxes are preyed upon by humans, large owls, eagles, lynxes, caracals, leopards, cougars, bobcats, wolves, and sometimes other foxes. Usually, the red fox coexists with domestic cats, hyenas, jackals, and coyotes.

Behavior

Foxes are highly vocal animals. Adults make 12 vocal sounds over five octaves. Red foxes also communicate using scent, marking territory and even empty food caches with urine or feces.

Foxes mainly hunt before dawn and after dusk. Their eyes have a tapetum lucidum to aid with vision in dim light, plus they have an acute sense of hearing. The red fox pounces on prey from above, using its tail as a rudder. The tail, also known as a "brush," covers the fox and helps it stay warm in cold weather.

Reproduction and Offspring

For most of the year, red foxes are solitary and live in the open. However, in the winter, they court, mate, and seek dens. Vixens reach sexual maturity as early as 9 or 10 months, so they may bear a litter at one year of age. Males mature later. After mating, the gestation period lasts approximately 52 days. The vixen (female fox) gives birth to around four to six kits, though the number of young can be as high as 13.

The fluffy brown or gray kits are born blind, deaf, and without teeth. At birth, they only weigh 2 to 4 ounces with 5 to 6 inch bodies and 3 inch tails. Newborn kits cannot regulate their temperature, so their mother remains with them while the male fox or another vixen brings food. The kits are born with blue eyes that change to amber after about two weeks. Kits start to leave the den around 3 to 4 weeks of age and are weaned at 6 to 7 weeks. Their coat color begins changing at 3 weeks of age, with guard hairs appearing after 2 months. While red foxes may live 15 years in captivity, they usually survive 3 to 5 years in the wild.

Fox kits are fluffy and grayish brown.
Fox kits are fluffy and grayish brown. Maxime Riendeau / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The IUCN classifies the conservation status of the red fox as "least concern." The species' population remains stable, even though the fox is hunted for sport and fur and killed as a pest or rabies carrier.

Red Foxes and Humans

The stability of the red fox population is tied to the fox's adaptation to human encroachment. Foxes successfully colonize suburban and urban areas. They scavenge refuse and accept food left for them by people, but often stray to rural areas to hunt.

Generally, red foxes make poor pets because they are destructive to homes and mark areas with scent. However, they can form strong bonds with people, cats, and dogs, especially if domestication starts before the fox reaches 10 weeks of age.

In some places it is legal to keep a red fox as a pet.
In some places it is legal to keep a red fox as a pet. All images taken by Keven Law of London, England. / Getty Images

Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyayev selectively bred silver morph red foxes to develop a true domesticated fox. Over time, these foxes developed physical attributes of dogs, including curled tails and floppy ears.

While fox hunting for sport has decreased over time, the animal remains important for the fur trade. Foxes are also killed because they harbor communicable diseases such as rabies and because they prey on domestic and wild animals. Foxes, like wolves, may continue to kill prey beyond what they need to eat.

Sources

  • Harris, Stephen. Urban Foxes. 18 Anley Road, London W14 OBY: Whittet Books Ltd. 1986. ISBN 978-0905483474.
  • Hoffmann, M. and C. Sillero-Zubiri. Vulpes vulpesThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T23062A46190249. 2016. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T23062A46190249.en
  • Hunter, L. Carnivores of the World. Princeton University Press. p. 106. 2011. SBN 978-0-691-15227-1.
  • Iossa, Graziella; et al. "Body mass, territory size, and life-history tactics in a socially monogamous canid, the red fox Vulpes vulpes." Journal of Mammalogy. 89 (6): 1481–1490. 2008. doi:10.1644/07-mamm-a-405.1
  • Nowak, Ronald M. Walker's Mammals of the World. 2. JHU Press. p. 636. 1999. ISBN 978-0-8018-5789-8.