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12 Unique Characteristics of Foxes

Typically, when someone sees the word “Fox”, their mind pictures a small dog-like animal with bright red fur, pointy ears and a bushy tail. This description is apt for the well-known red fox that we are familiar with in North America. Foxes however, are diverse with several species found all over the world.  In this article, we’ll be covering some of the traits and characteristics of foxes and what makes them unique.

12 characteristics of foxes

1. They have a large distribution

Family Foxes
Family Foxes by Imran Hussain from Pixabay

The red fox alone has the largest distribution of any terrestrial mammal outside of humans, being found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. They were also introduced and are now established throughout much of Australia, where they are a nuisance invasive species. When looking at all fox species, foxes are found on every continent except Antarctica.

2. They live in diverse habitats

Since foxes can be found throughout the world, they can also be within a range of habitat types. The red fox is a generalist species which thrives amongst humans with populations thriving across farmlands and highly populated cities.

The fennec fox is adapted to life in hot, arid deserts. They have short fur to remain cool, and large ears to dispel heat and locate prey burrowed in the sand.

The arctic fox has adapted in the opposite direction, being found in the arctic tundra. They have thick fur which insulates them from the cold, and very small ears to reduce heat loss.

3. They have bushy tails

Fox on snow field
Fox on snow field | Image by Yvonne Huijbens from Pixabay

Most foxes have large bushy tails, also known as brushes. Similar to other canine species and even cats, their tail is used for balance. Some foxes wrap their tails around their bodies for warmth and even use them to communicate with other foxes.

We can even tell some species of fox apart by the color at the end of the tail, called tags. Red and gray foxes are two species which can be difficult to tell apart, especially if both can be found in your region. A quick look at the tail tags will clear this up, with red foxes having a white-tipped tail and gray foxes black.

4. They come in different sizes

Considering they are canines, foxes are typically small to mid-sized, with most species being smaller than things like coyotes, jackals and wolves. Their size is highly variable between fox species.

Red fox, which is the largest and most common species, can range between eight to 18 pounds for an adult male. On the other side of the spectrum, the fennec fox weighs in at around two pounds on average.

5. They have cat-like claws

Red fox on grass field
Red fox on grass field | Image by Andreas Neumann from Pixabay

Although foxes are in the same family as dogs and wolves, some characteristics more closely resemble cat species. Their claws in particular can partially retract, unlike most canine species. This is an adaptation to protect their claws during running and even climbing trees.

6. Their fur changes with the weather

Foxes’ fur can be quite different between species, particularly as foxes can be found throughout a range of climates. The color and thickness of fox fur can adapt seasonally to the weather. Foxes gain thick fur during the winter, which they molt when entering the warmer months of the year.

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7. They live short, solitary lives

Fox | Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

Foxes are relatively short-lived, with many species living two-five years on average. Canines are generally pack-animals, forming large high functioning groups for hunting and breeding. Foxes may live in small groups, but many species are considered to be solitary.

8. They are mostly omnivorous

The diet of foxes is made up of many types of food items. They are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals.

The composition of their diet varies between species and location, but consist mainly of invertebrates, small vertebrates, some vegetation and eggs. Excess food is often buried underground or stored under leaves and snow for later consumption.

9. They have specialized hunting techniques

Fox eating meat
Fox eating meat | image by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

You may have seen the cute pouncing videos of foxes. This is a hunting technique referred to as “mousing” where foxes surprise prey from above. Some researchers believe that foxes use the earth’s magnetic field during hunting, with individuals observed jumping in northeast direction at all times.

10. They are noisy!

Brown fox howling
Brown fox howling | Photo by Rajukhan Pathan via Pexels

What does the fox say? Well, a number of things actually. Fox calls change throughout their life cycle, from “whines” when being nurtured by their mothers, “growls” for general communication between individuals, and “barks” to deter predators.

11. They are used as symbols for trickery and wit in many cultures

Foxes can depict several different things throughout global cultures. These range from mystical and sacred creatures to bad omens that bring ruin. Throughout folklore, foxes are often associated with trickery and are commonly thought of as symbols of cunningness.

12. Some species have healthy populations while some are at risk of extinction

Foxes are diverse and widespread, but there are some species which require intervention to help conserve their populations. The Darwin’s fox, for example, is critically endangered because of an incredibly small population size (2-300 adults), and distribution. The issue for Darwin’s foxes has primarily been linked to habitat loss and degradation.