The Fox: From Fable To Reality

see image A widely-spread carnivorous mammal, the fox has been drawn to the attention of the people ever since early Antiquity, remaining throughout the ages the most steadfast symbol of slyness, cunningness, cruelty and cynicism. Totemic animals from one region in the Peloponnesus, Messenia, guides of Orpheus through the Inferno, heroes of Aesop's fables, foxes have been the favourite characters of fabliaux (short stories in verses, very much appreciated during the Middle Ages), which culminated with Le Roman de Renart. Published in the 12th century, this epic concerning animals, having as its main character the male fox, continued to multiply its versions until towards the mid-15th century. Then it served as inspiration for many of the cathedral sculptures, one of the most famous being the burial of Renart in Strasbourg cathedral, from the end of the 13th century. We should also mention the illustrations from the medieval bestiaries where the fox would be frequently portrayed. In an English bestiary the fox is drawn in great detail and a story is presented where the fox plays dead in order to trick the birds. But is it simply a tale, as the natural biologists considered it to be for several ages? The sly old fox The current status of the foxes is somewhat paradoxical. They are not protected under any law, they are heavily hunted in all seasons and especially in winter, trapped, gassed, decimated by rabies and nevertheless, their number continues to increase throughout the entire northern hemisphere. Moreover, they permanently expand their habitat: they moved from forests to agricultural regions, and even to the periphery of large cities, and to the parks. What would be the causes of this amazing success? Doubtlessly, this mammal from the Canidae family is a very prolific animal, and the development of the cubs is very rapid, though their mortality during the first year of life is quite significant (60-80%).Their prolificacy may be a reason, but it is certainly not the only one. We should take other factors into account, probably more important, such as the intelligence of this animal, obviously superior to that of the dog, as evidenced by experiments and laboratory tests; the rapidity with which it understands and solves complex situations; the manner in which it hunts or deceives its enemies; its extraordinary sense of strategy based on an amazing knowledge of its vital territory. All this surprising behaviour is served by ultra-efficient senses: smell, hearing and sight. Therefore, this medium-sized carnivorous mammal has become a clever, swift, and quiet predator. But besides the qualities mentioned above, we must add two more essential qualities: the fox's amazing capacity to adapt to the most varied of environments and its instinct for self-preservation manifested through an out of the ordinary carefulness. There is also a bookish pattern of the fox as found in stories and fables, but in these patterns its character is often deformed by the moralists – the actual character found in nature may seem less picturesque, but it is indisputably much more interesting and full of surprises. "Fashion" senseApparently, everybody knows what the fox looks like and the attempt to provide a description may seem futile, but there are also aspects which not everybody knows and, in addition, the animal is liked by some and detested by others, any closeness to it being only in the form of coats and fur collars. At present, 12 species of the Vulpes genus are known throughout the globe, except for Australia (where it was introduced by people) and Antarctica; the morphological variability of some species and especially of the common fox is distinctive: some natural biologists have classified no less than 73 sub-species; this is however an exaggeration. It is true that ever since the time of count Buffon the French made a distinction between two categories of foxes, red foxes and the so-called charcoal foxes (Charbonniers), but the colour of the fur varies ad infinitum from one individual to another. With some red foxes, the neck and the belly are grey, as with the charcoal fox, while many individuals have a black back and a light-coloured belly, which can be even white. Moreover, to make things even more complicated, the colour of the fur, especially in the case of female foxes, changes throughout the year. The winter coat is thicker, the length of a hair being 2-3 cm. The average size of a fox is 1.25 m, while the tail alone measures 50 cm. Its height is 35-40 cm, and they weigh a maximum of 6 kg during their mating season. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, some foxes weighing 10 kg, while the record is held by an old male that weighed 11.3 kg. Males are not visibly different from females in relation to weight or their exterior aspect, and therefore males and females cannot be differentiated from a distance. In other words, sexual dimorphism is not evident. The body of the fox is cylindrical in shape, its skeleton being adapted for running, with a bushy tail that serves as a "helm" and for maintaining balance. Thanks to its tail, the fox while running at full speed may brake abruptly and change its direction with surprising agility, which often helps it escape its pursuers. Its head is very expressive, with pointed ears, long nose, spirited, shrewd eyes, its side whiskers and its two black lines starting from the inner angle of the eyes and reaching downwards to its nose. They say that the fox's head expresses shrewdness and malice. Hunger, the best cookThe fox is an omnivorous animal; however its diet varies depending on the season, on the biotope, and on the presence or absence of certain prey. Some recent studies, based on the analysis of the content of the stomach, revealed that 45% of the food consumed is of animal origin, and 18% is represented by fruit (apples, grapes, blackberries, currants) and also by corn. They also eat many insects – bugs, grasshoppers, butterflies, they dig for earth worms which they enjoy eating. Being a good swimmer, the fox is even capable of catching fish. Of course, birds are always found in its diet, especially the birds which nest on the ground, but the inroads into hen houses also bring rich rewards. The fox kills all the birds in the hen house, and then carries them one by one. It also attacks larger animals – groundhogs, rabbits and even baby deer, usually sick, injured or old animals. It does not avoid dead carcasses when hungry, but the main food source is represented by rodents – various species of mice, such as the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), the striped field mouse (Apodemus agrarius) or the mice from the Microtus genus. The number of mice eaten amounts to a few thousand individuals per year, sometimes as much as 30-40 mice a day. The fox is a useful animal due to its killing of rodents but, unfortunately, people perceive it as a pest: the damage caused by foxes however is quite insignificant, and the campaigns for eliminating this animal are truly unjustifiable. When it obtains a large prey, the fox makes reserves by burying some of the kill in different areas and covering it with a layer of soil. After several days, it digs up its prey, finding it not by using its sense of smell, but owing to its particularly good memory. Smelling markers The red fox is widely distributed throughout the whole of Europe (up to the north of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the only areas where it cannot be found are Iceland and Crete), in all of Asia, as far as the Japanese islands, almost throughout North America, and a large part of Australia, where it was introduced by the colonists in the 1870's in order not to miss out on the pleasure of fox hunting as practised in their countries of origin. The fox frequents extremely varied biotopes, indeed it actually lives everywhere it can find shelter and food. Initially it was probably a forest animal, but today when its natural enemies (the wolf, the lynx, the royal aquila) have become scarce or disappeared entirely from certain regions, it prefers semi-open areas around agricultural lands, and, especially in England, it has adapted to life in towns, feeding on household waste. The average density of foxes in Europe is approximately one fox per square kilometre, a statistic which is not encountered with any other medium-sized or large wild mammals. In mountain regions it can be found up to altitudes of over 2500 m.The fox is a sedentary animal, connected to a certain territory whose surface depends on the frequency and density of its prey. In bare mountain regions, where food is scarce, its territory exceeds 16 square km., but its average territory measures approximately 2 square km.Mostly a nocturnal animal, especially in the areas also frequented by people, the fox usually hunts at dusk and dawn and can travel in one night a distance of up to 5-10 km. within its territory. The fox marks its territory using urine markers, faeces, and the secretions from cutaneous glands located between the pads on its paws and at the base of its tail. This role belongs especially to the dominant male. Faeces are deposited in a visible place and urine markers, which have a very strong and persistent smell, are left at distances of approximately 100 m. The movement of foxes is quite regular. Eric Dragesco was able to notice in July 1992, during a period of 10 days, a couple of foxes which used to leave the forest every night between 19:55 and 20:00 hours.By using the radio-transmitters it was observed that foxes live in groups made up of a dominant couple and other individuals that accept this hierarchy. Such a structure is met only in the regions where food is abundant and the number of foxes is quite high. Usually, foxes are solitary animals. They have a den, but they seldom use it outside the cub-raising season, preferring to rest in open air. Located in the quietest area of its territory, the den is often "borrowed" from a badger, the fox not having digging skills. The den usually has several entrances; it measures between 5 and 15 meters in length and is a couple of meters deep. The same den is often used both by badgers and by foxes, the badger giving up its shelter and leaving room for the fox's cubs.Foxes have a large range of vocal sounds, whimpers, howls, a kind of grunting noise, a wailing or contrasting shout, a snapping sound and a sound which resembles a funny laughter. A natural biologist discovered and recorded 46 different sounds. Most of these are used to communicate between individuals over long distances. During mating season, the male travels the territory using the same trails and howling in order to let everyone know that it is the master of the domain. Each individual has a very personal vocal register and therefore it can be identified by the people who are well-accustomed to that relevant region. Mother foxSexual dimorphism is not visible with foxes: the male is only a bit heavier and stouter, with a rounder face in comparison to the longer face of the female. In January, most adult females are in heat and the period during which there are receptive is very short, between 24 hours and 6 days at the most. During this season of love, which takes place in midwinter, before mating the partners perform a dance, actually a type of jumping one around the other, in silence or by making certain moaning sounds.The gestating female looks for a den, but very seldom it digs one for herself. Here, after the gestation period, which lasts for 51-53 days, it delivers three to seven cubs, small as moles, completely blind, and covered with dark-coloured fur. After about two weeks, the cubs open their eyes and are already able to stand. The female does not leave the den during these first two weeks, being apparently fed by the male. The first trip of the cubs outside the den occurs when they are one month old. The suckling period lasts between six and nine months, during which the fur becomes red as the adults' fur. The growth is rapid: when the cubs are three months old they are frisky and weigh around 2.5 kg. At the end of spring, the female appears to be very weak and starts shedding fur. Towards autumn, the cubs, especially the male cubs, roam around, trying to search for free territories, and for this purpose they travel between 5 and 15 km. Life expectancy for foxes is very low, at an average of 18 months. Foxes more than five years old are very rare (2%), and the longevity record seems to belong to a female fox found in England which lived for nine years.  Enemies, illnessWe have already mentioned that foxes do not have any more natural enemies, the main mortality cause being scabies, and especially rabies. Rabies is responsible with killing up to 50-80% of the mature population and spreads approximately 40-50 km. per year in a territory. Nowadays, the fox is the main carrier of rabies, and in the areas where the sickness appears animals are completely destroyed; however due to the high birth rate percentage these populations are renewed. There is also another means to eliminate rabies, i.e. oral vaccination by using bait (chicken heads) inoculated with anti-rabies vaccine. For this purpose, the vaccination campaigns initiated in Switzerland in 1970 had significant results: approximately 74% of the fox population consumed vaccine bait and the disease practically disappeared from the country.Foxes also transmit two dangerous parasites to people, Leishmania and Echinococcus multilocularis. The latter can cause a severe disease of the liver.  Simulating death One of the subtlest feats of slyness practiced by various animals, insects, frogs, snakes, birds, squirrels, but which we also encounter with foxes, not as perfect as with snakes, but nevertheless very efficient, is the simulation of death. The animal suddenly falls into a state of lethargy, of utter inertness, then it comes back to life at the most opportune of times. This is a risky form of self-defence, and in the case of the fox, a form of tricking the prey. The phenomenon has been known for seven centuries: it is described in Queen Mary's Psalter from the 14th century, and it was considered just a legend lacking conclusive evidence. In 1961, a Russian filmmaker managed to film the behaviour the fox used for deceiving and catching birds. The legend thus turned into a proven scientific fact. In illustrations of ancient bestiaries (12th century), the fox appears lying on its back with its mouth open and its tongue out and surrounded by birds which prepare to peck at it, but which are caught and devoured after a sudden jump, similar to the film made by the Russian cinematographer.  Emeritus artist in cunningnessThe story of the fox and its fleas is also very ancient, dating from the time of Aesop: the fox gets rid of its fleas by progressively submerging into a river or a lake while holding in its mouth a wisp of dry grass or a stick. When the submerging is complete the tip of the stick or the wisp of grass where all the fleas on the foxes body take refuge, is the only thing remaining on the surface of the water where it is then abandoned. Testimonies to this strange behaviour are numerous; the most recent being carefully analysed by the English natural biologist Maurice Burton, who concludes that history may very well be true even though there is no incontestable evidence, just like in the case of simulated death. But the fox chased by a suite of hunters and dogs that suddenly turns about and takes refuge between the horses' legs is a real fact, recorded as such. Poachers who hunt with traps and nooses have been long complaining that foxes systematically steal their prey and leave instead their faeces, as a sign of defiance or profound contempt. Nowadays we know the significance of this behaviour: it represents nothing more than a procedure for marking the territory. All these stories concerning foxes lead us to a couple of important conclusions. The extraordinary variety of means used by foxes absolutely excludes "innate behaviour", so the cerebral faculties of this animal are very developed. In conclusion, the fox seems to have a self-knowledge which can only be compared – of course by keeping the proportions – to that of man. In the case of the fox, a champion of cunningness, I believe we can say that reality confirms the legend. Speaking about "relatives"Nowadays 12 species of foxes are known, classified by zoologists under the genus Vulpes, the Latin name of the animal which is also found in Romance languages. In ancient Greek, there were several names, all derived from kiraphas, which derives from the term kirran (red or coppery colour). But the actual name of the fox was alopex, as used by Aristotle in The History of Animals, which survived in modern Greek under the form alepon. Leaving linguistics aside, we should mention that the red fox or the common fox is the largest species of its genus, having a large morphological variability, hence the numerous subspecies described. In Romania, only three subspecies can be found: Vulpes vulpes vulpes (the red fox), with a white line around the mouth and a white tail tip, being the most widely spread; the "charcoal" fox (Vulpes vulpes melanogaster), with dark-coloured, black-grey fur; and finally the "cross" fox (Vulpes vulpes crucigera), which has a black line on its withers descending on its front legs. The fox has a very acute sense of hearing which allows it to locate sounds whose frequency is around 700 and 3000 hertz, with an angular precision of only a couple of degrees! Its hearing is otherwise the most used of all the senses during the hunt. A fox is capable of perceiving the movement of a field rat from more than 200 meters. On 13 June 1991 I checked myself the exceptional auditive qualities of a fox cub that was napping in front of the den. I was stalking at a 12-meter distance from the den, and every time I triggered the flash of the camera the animal would prick its ears because it could hear perfectly the very faint sound of the camera. A human ear couldn't have possibly heard such a faint noise.Their sight is less developed, but I was able to notice that it is far from being average: on 16 June 1984, a fox noticed from a distance of 150 meters the slow movement I made by opening the 10 cm shutter door of my stalking tent. Eric Dragesco – La vie savage dans les Alpes, Delachaux et Niestle, Paris, 1995 The fox is a character often met in world literature, from the Far East to Aesop's Greece, to the France of the classic Jean de la Fontaine or the Romanian Alexandru Odobescu: The Tailless Fox, Master Ranica the Fox.Here is an eloquent statistic: out of 257 of Aesop's fables (4th century BC) which have animals as characters, the fox is present in 42. Second, with a presence of 36 fables, comes the lion.A couple of centuries later, La Fontaine (1621-1695) also uses animals as characters in 147 of his fables. The fox remains in first place with a presence of 20 fables, followed by the lion (18). Translated by Anca Dumitriu

by Alexandru Marinescu