Tag Archives: fox

Foxes living in the city are starting to become domesticated

Red foxes living in the city are evolving traits associated with pets or livestock animals such as shorter snouts or smaller skulls among other physical characteristics, a new study suggests.

Image credits Tony Hisgett / Flickr.

Dr. Kevin Parsons, of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine explains that there are some important physical and behavioral differences between red foxes that live in the UK’s urban and rural environments, with the former becoming more similar to domesticated dogs.

The findings help further our understanding of how domestication processes take place and could help uncover how humanity domesticated other animals in the past

Wild is out of fashion

“We wondered whether this change in lifestyle was related to adaptive differences between urban and rural populations of red foxes,” said Dr. Parsons, of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, lead author of the paper.

“We assessed skulls from hundreds of foxes found within London and the surrounding countryside and saw that urban foxes had a smaller brain size capacity but also a different snout shape that would help them forage within urban habitats. There was also less of a difference between males and females in urban foxes.”

Coronavirus lockdowns around the world have created space for wild animals to roam (or even take up residence in) our cities more often. However, they present a very different habitat compared to the wilds, and many species just can’t adapt to long-term life in the city.

But some are especially good at it. Red foxes are one such species, and they’ve become quite prevalent in urban areas, especially in the UK. They’re also adapting to be better suited to life here, and to living in proximity to humans.

The team explains that the changes they documented in the study are the same that they would expect to see during a domestication process. The foxes are far from being domesticated, but they are taking on characteristics seen in domesticated animals. The team explains that their findings here can help us piece together how dogs, for example, evolved into pets from predators.

The changes observed by the team are “primarily involved with” the length of their snouts, braincases, and reduced sexual dimorphism (i.e. physical differences between the two sexes). Urban foxes have shorter snouts and smaller braincases, the paper explains. Differences between the two populations are “widespread and related to muscle attachment sites”, they add and likely driven by different requirements for cognitive ability and physical characteristics when feeding in the two habitats.

These changes matched up with what would be expected during a domestication process. In other words, while urban foxes are certainly not domesticated, they are changing in ways that move them closer to what is seen in many domesticated animals.

“This is important because human-animal interactions are continuous and some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today,” adds co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

The paper “Skull morphology diverges between urban and rural populations of red foxes mirroring patterns of domestication and macroevolution” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

While we quarantine, some animals take to the streets, some get lonely, and a panda may get pregnant

As we keep to our homes more and more, wildlife is coming into the city to explore. Luckily for us, there’s always a camera nearby to capture such moments for “d’awws” and “aawws” on social media.

But not all animals are enjoying themselves equally. With zoos shutting their gates to the public, and amid growing concern that staff could unwittingly infect them, some zoo animals are starting to miss getting attention — but they’re also getting busy.

The goats of Llandudno

Wild goats roaming through Llandudno in North Wales by Andrew Stuart, a video producer at Manchester Evening News.
Image via Medium.

“Llandudno has a herd of wild goats, which date back to the 1800s. They do like to come down the hillside, as seen many, many times previously — and documented extensively by my colleagues at North Wales Live and the Daily Post,” Stuart explained for Medium.

“They are still wary of people and human life. Normally, they are put off going much further than the bottom of the Great Orme because of how busy it is (in relative terms — this is still Llandudno after all, and not inner-city Manchester). However, thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown, the goats didn’t have any traffic, people or noise stopping them — so they ventured out.”

The goats do seem to enjoy themselves, as they chew through local shrubbery and gardens, sunbathe in a churchyard, and even “blocked traffic”. However, they are still wary of coming close to humans.

This sleepy fox somewhere in Canada

Image credits SaraReneeRyan / Twitter.

Sara, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Texas Tech, Tweeted that her dad who lives somewhere in Canada “had been sending me and my sister updates [on the fox] all day” and has even named it Nezuko.

It’s not hard to see why.

Foxes are one of the more often-spotted animals in this period, from what I’ve seen so far. There’s a lot of fox photos to enjoy in the replies to Sara’s tweet if that’s your thing (it definitely is mine).

A chill coyote

A coyote spotted in San Francisco.
Image credits beccatravels / Reddit (Becca Cook).

San Francisco is no stranger to coyotes. They live in the woods near the Bay Area and are generally content to stay away from people or ignore them if they meet. This one, however, looks very pleased that the normal hustle and bustle of the city has been curtailed in order do get some peace and quiet with a view.

But while this coyote is enjoying itself, others are hard at work resolving local politics.

“We had coup d’etat if you will,” Presidio Wildlife Ecologist Jonathan Young told ABC News about a fight that broke out in between the animals a few days ago. “A new alpha pair came and took over and kicked out the old alpha pair.”

“Since the COVID shelter-in-place, the winding trails and idle golf course [around the city’s Presidio] have become a go-to refuge for neighbors and more importantly their dogs. For the next few weeks or months, that’s potential trouble.”

The Presidio Trust cautions people that coyotes aren’t typically aggressive, but will regularly be on the hunt or defend themselves from domestic pets. It’s also a pupping season currently, so people would best try to avoid these animals. Sections of the Park Trail and the Bay Area Ridge Trail will be closed to hounds starting April 6 for the next few weeks or months over concerns about safety.

What’s happening in the zoos

We’ve just had our first confirmed case of the coronavirus jumping from a human to a tiger, and zoo staff are understandably worried that they may unwittingly infect their charges. As such, zoos around the world are implementing measures to limit the risk by reducing the animal’s exposure with their handlers and the public.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since reiterated that there is no evidence yet that pets can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the US, but zoos and conservation centers are still being especially careful. For example, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a rehabilitation center for orangutans in Borneo, closed its doors to all visitors and asked the caretakers to wear masks and protective gloves when working with the primates, which are burned after the working day is over.

Grosser Panda.JPG
A giant panda at Ocean Park, Hongkong.
Image credits J. Patrick Fischer,

Nathan Hawke from Orana wildlife park in New Zealand told The Guardian that although visitors are no longer permitted, many of the park’s animals continue to come for their daily ‘meet the public’ appointments. Other groups of animals that are accustomed to human presence also seem to miss us, too, although the feeling may be forming through their stomach more than through their hearts.

Privacy, perhaps, was just what some of these species had been missing, however. Staff at the Ocean Park in Hong Kong reported that the 14-year-old resident female and male giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le have “succeeded in natural mating” two days ago — because there aren’t any rules on panda social distancing.

This is the first success since attempts at natural mating began a decade ago, and the staff is excited for the birth, as the species is currently considered vulnerable in the wild but attempts to breed more giant pandas in captivity have been remarkably frustrating.


Bronze-age Iberians included domesticated foxes and dogs in their burial practices


I mean, who wouldn’t domesticate this guy?!
Image via Pixabay.

By the third and second millennia BC, humans in today’s Spain often included animals in their tombs. The practice left us evidence of fox domestication by this time.

If you ever wanted a fox for a pet (be honest, we all do), you’ll be really envious of the Iberian peoples of the Early- to Middle-Bronze Age. Four foxes and a large number of dogs found at the Can Roqueta (Barcelona) and Minferri (Lleida) sites showcase their widespread practice of burying people alongside domestic animals. The findings also give us a glimpse into how these people and their animals lived, as well as their close relationships.

Foxy fur babies

Last week we saw how stone-age communities in roughly the same area of modern Spain included dogs in their funeral practices. Today, let’s take a look at how these practices evolved over time.

“We discovered that in some cases the dogs received a special kind of food. We believe this is linked to their function as working dogs. Besides, one of the foxes shows signs of having already been a domestic animal in those times,” says Aurora Grandal-d’Anglade, first author of the study.

Human remains found at these sites were buried in large silos along with dogs and a few foxes, the team reports. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis (performed on bone collagen), in addition to several other methods, allowed the researchers to piece together the diet of both the animals and their owners. The team looked at 37 dogs, 19 domestic ungulates, and 64 humans.

Study area.

Map of the study area showing Can Roqueta, Minferri and other sites cited in the text: (1) Bòbila Madurell, (2) Can Gambús, (3) Pinetons, (4) Mas d’en Boixos, and (5) Cantorella.
Image credits Grandal-d’Anglade et al., 2019, Arch. and Anth. Sciences.

The dogs tended to have comparable diets to that of the humans. The foxes had a more varied menu: in some cases, it closely resembled the dogs’, while others ate pretty much what wild animals with little human contact would eat.

Such diets suggest that the animals were already domesticated and relied on humans for food. Further evidence of the close ties these handlers formed with their pets comes from the remains of a fox retrieved at Can Roqueta.

“The case of the Can Roqueta fox is very special, because it is an old animal, with a broken leg. The fracture is still in its healing process, and shows signs of having been immobilized (cured) by humans. The feeding of this animal is very unusual, as it is more akin to a puppy dog’s. We interpret it as a domestic animal that lived for a long time with humans,” Grandal explains.

Some larger dogs — in particular those found at Con Roqueta — seem to have been fed a cereal-rich mix, as was at least one fox involved in the study. The team also reports findings signs of spinal column disorder in these specimens, suggesting they were used as pack animals. Their diet, then, directly reflected their role in the community — it’s not easy being a pack animal, and a high-carbohydrate diet gave them the calories needed to perform the task.

“It may seem strange that dogs were basically fed with cereals, but this was already recommended by the first-century Hispano-Roman agronomist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, in his work De re rustica,” says Silvia Albizuri Canadell, an archaeozoologist at the University of Barcelona and co-author of the study.

Unsurprisingly, other animals such as cows, sheep, or goats found in the graves had a herbivorous diet. Their role was likely to provide humans with food (milk, meat) or materials such as leather or wool — not labor. Factor in that the horse wasn’t known in these societies until much later, and the role of dogs as pack animals becomes more understandable. Dogs also served as an integral part of their communities’ economic pursuits by guiding herds and offering protection from wild animals. They likely obtained animal proteins from human leftovers.

In general, the team adds, both humans and dogs likely ate mostly plant matter, with some (but not a lot of) animal proteins, but “not necessarily much meat; they could be, for example, derived from milk,” according to Grandal. The men of these communities do stand out as incorporating more meat in their diets compared to women and children. Dogs’ diets were more similar to that of women and children, the team also found, suggesting that they  were more linked to […] domestic environments.”

“The characteristics of dogs include their great intelligence, easy trainability and, undoubtedly, their defensive behaviour. As if that were not enough, this animal was used until the nineteenth century AD in North America, Canada and Europe for light transport on its back and for dragging carts and sleds. It also functioned as a pack animal on the Peninsula during the Bronze Age,” says co-author Albizuri Canadell.

Some archaeological specimens from North America also show bone disorders that stem from the pulling of ‘travois’ (a type of sledge). Similar pathologies have also been recently identified in the vertebrae of Siberian Palaeolithic dogs.

All in all, the findings illustrate the role dogs played as transport animals in the first migrations and human movements through glacial Europe. These animals likely played a fundamental and much more important role in their communities than believed until recently, the team writes.

Animals may have also served as a type of status symbol. The team found significant variation in the funeral treatment of different members of the studied communities. In one case, the team found “the body of an old man with the remains of a whole cow and the legs of up to seven goats,” while a young woman was buried with “the offering of a whole goat, two foxes, and a bovine horn.” Yet another individual uncovered in a different funeral complex was laid to rest with the whole bodies of two bovines and two dogs.

“We still don’t know why only a few people would have had the right or privilege to be buried with this type of offering, unlike what happens with the vast majority of burials,” explains co-author Ariadna Nieto Espinet.

“[…] these could be an indicator of the wealth of the deceased individual or of his clan or family,” she argues. “It seems that species such as bovines and dogs, two of the most recurring animals in funeral offerings, are those that might have played a fundamental role in the economy and work as well as in the symbolic world, becoming elements of ostentation, prestige and protection”.

The paper “Dogs and foxes in Early-Middle Bronze Age funerary structures in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula: human control of canid diet at the sites of Can Roqueta (Barcelona) and Minferri (Lleida)” has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Ravens remember the faces of people who duped them into unfair deals

You better be nice to ravens — or they’ll remember you treated them badly next time they see you. According to a recent study, ravens (Corvus corax) can distinguish and remember people who treated them unfairly in the past shedding more light on the complex social lives of some of the most intelligent creatures on there.

Don't be a dick with ravens, like this fox. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Don’t be a dick with ravens, like this fox. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

A raven’s grudge

In the classic Aesop fable “The Fox and the Raven”, a raven is tricked by a sly fox into dropping the delicious piece of cheese from its beak. The fox flatters the bird asking it to sing or speak, depending on the variation of the story. ‘You were not dumb, it seems, you have indeed a voice; you have everything, Sir Crow, except brains,’ says the fox who runs off with the yummy morsel.

The truth is ravens have plenty of brains. These birds score on par with chimps on cognitive tests, use gestures to point out things and communicate, they can also tell if someone’s looking at them or not and can remember people’s faces.  In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast.

As for the fox in Aesop’s fable, it better be careful next time. According to a new paper published in the journal Animal Behavior, ravens learn to prefer trainers who have treated them fairly over those who have ripped them off.

The conclusion was reported by researchers in  Vienna and Sweden who trained common ravens to trade crust of bread for a morsel of cheese with human partners who acted as the broker. After this initial round, the researchers observed what happened when the birds dealt with ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ partners. The latter humans would simply keep the bread after it was offered by the raven and scandalously ate the cheese. Trick me once but you won’t trick me twice, the raven must have thought. Indeed, the ravens purposely avoided the cheating humans in separate trials a month later. This can only mean that ravens not only have a sense of fairness, they hold grudges for at least a month too, signaling a fine memory. They likely hold on to these grudges for far longer than a month, much like my ex-girlfriend.

Ravens aren’t the only non-human animals with a sense of fairness. Dogs and wolves share it, as do chimpanzees and likely many other creatures.

Russian geneticist breeds the first domesticated foxes and I want one

A Russian geneticist has done something that took our ancestors thousands of years in just five decades. By selectively breeding hundreds of Vulpes vulpes foxes over multiple generations, Dmitry K. Belyaev has created a never-before-seen pet: the domesticated fox.

Image credits Neil McIntosh / Flickr.

On an unassuming farm in Novosibirsk, a new breed of pets is poised to take the world’s hearts by storm. In his quest of recreating the process by which ancient humans turned wild dogs from predators to “man’s best friend’ to learn about domestication, Russian geneticist Dmitry K. Belyaev has created the world’s first docile foxes.

In essence, what he did was husbandry or artificial selection. By basing future generations on individuals who exhibited one desired trait the strongest, he gradually added to the tameness of the animal — this was the same process our ancestors used to increase their crops’ and livestock’s yield and hardiness. The process was pretty straightforward but time-consuming. Belyaev visited fur farms around Russia in the late 1950’s and selected the friendliest foxes he could find. He bred successive generations starting from this stock, selecting the tamest individuals each time.

In the early 2000s, almost all of the foxes on Belyaev’s farm show surprising changes in behavior, reported Lucy Jones for the BBC.

Cuddly, friendly little vixens

Foxes are considered especially hard to tame, but these ones on the farm seem to enjoy their time with people. They acted more like dogs than what we’d expect from a fox — things such as wagging their tails or perking up in the presence of a human. The foxes didn’t show any of the aggressive or skittish nature we expect in wild animals. On the contrary, they would seek out people to pet them and even lick their handler’s face — and you can’t really get more “dog” than that.

Belyaev said this all happens without any sort of training on his part. The only thing he did was to select for the foxes that interacted with humans the best.

“They’re genetically designed to crave human contact,” said Ceiridwen Terrill, a professor of Science Writing and Environmental Journalism at Concordia University in Portland who visited the farm and got to pet the foxes, for NPR.

“So that fox loved having its belly scratched.”

The foxes also started looking tamer over time: their ears got floppier, they developed shorter legs, tails, snouts, and their skulls widened. Their breeding patterns have also changed, and the foxes now mated out of season and had on average one more offspring per litter. In a 2009 paper, Lyudmila Trut of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who now oversees the farm, says this is likely caused by neurological and endocrinological changes promoted through selective breeding.

The paper found that compared to wild foxes, Belyaev’s pets show the difference in brain chemistry. Their adrenal glands are less active but they have higher levels of serotonin, which helps mediate aggressive behavior, Trut writes. The droopy ears could be explained by their slower adrenal system, BBC writes, and the selected hormonal differences could also inadvertently promote physical differences. Dogs likely went through much the same process over the course of hundreds of generations as they gradually adapted to living with us.

The experiment confirms our theories regarding domestication. Not only the fact that we can bend a species evolutionary course in our favor, but also that the process affects more than their behavior. Domestication alters a species looks, inner workings, and the cycles they live their lives by.


Catalina Fox Makes Sharp Recovery

The Catalina Fox simply can’t catch a break – it went from endangered, to doing so well that local residents want to kill it again.

Urocyon littoralis – the Santa Catalina Island fox. Image via Wiki Commons.

In the Santa Catalina Island, a rocky island off the coast of the U.S. state of California, lives the smallest fox in the world – the Santa Catalina Island fox; or short, the island fox. The island fox (Urocyon littoralis) is significantly smaller than all fox species (something common for animals who evolve for long periods of time in insular habitats) and until recently, was considered near extinction.

In 1999, all but 100 out of 1,300 foxes on Catalina Island were wiped out because of a virulent strain of canine distemper. Biologists and wildlife conservationists moved in to protect the species, and following a successful recovery program, the fox population was restored to 400 individuals – a number considered a self-sufficient population.

But the species is not out of problems yet – now, the island fox is doing so well that it is actually migrating a bit towards a small city on the island, finding themselves stuck in uncovered water containers, trapped inside garbage cans, poisoned by rat poison and hit by dogs. The Catalina Island Conservancy has responded by raising funds for “animal proof” trash cans and installing “fox crossing” signs to remind motorists to keep an eye out.

With no natural predators other than humans and dogs (who are not really natural predators), the population thrived.

“The recovery of the island fox is one of the great success stories of ecological restoration. But with no natural predators, this little fox is the king of beasts on Catalina — and that can get it into trouble. I once honked the horn long and loud to get one out from under my car. It didn’t budge,” said Dave Garcelon, president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, a nonprofit research organization. In 2014, at least 21 foxes died after being struck by vehicles; two drowned in uncovered water containers; one was fatally mauled by an unleashed dog; and one perished after ingesting rat poison, the Catalina Island Conservancy said. The underlying cause of death of nine additional foxes, many of them found near roadside trash cans, was listed as unknown,” according to Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times.

But despite some people getting alarmed, biologists say that there is no need to worry, and even state that the population will regulate itself. In 2013, 68 pups were counted out of 362 captured animals, while in 2014, only 19 pups were counted for about the same number of foxes – so the population is managing its own numbers.

“It may be that the fox population is regulating itself in the face of higher population densities and reduced abundance of prey such as mice due to the ongoing drought,” said Julie King, director of conservation and wildlife management at the Catalina Island Conservancy, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

The foxes are tiny, averaging 18-20 inches in length and four to six inches in height with a tail between four and 11 inches. They pose no threat to humans.