Are foxes really cunning?

Hear how the fantastic Mr Fox does or doesn't live up to his stereotype...
24 August 2021

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Question

At The Naked Scientists we are all in agreement that we love the sneaky fox. But there are certain words that spring to mind when describing them, often depicted in entertainment as wily with phrases like ‘sly as a fox’. Is there any truth behind this stereotype?

Answer

Jo Wimpenny examines our tendency to anthropomorphise animals, stemming from fables and historic storytelling... 

Jo - It's a very, very persistent characterisation of foxes. And it's one that goes back millennia.

I'm not even sure that we could ever know when this idea of foxes being cunning and crafting and sly first came about, but certainly several of Aesop's fables include fox characters. They're pretty consistently portrayed as the quick witted animal. That's always tricking others to get out of trouble.

And the second century Roman author Aeliun, he referred to foxes as crafty creatures and masters of trickery. He even talked about foxes plotting against hedgehogs, which I love. And so, yeah, we kind of have this wonderful collective consciousness, I suppose, of foxes as being this, the words just sort of go together so easily.

If we get to the actual science and focus on fox biology, what we know is that these are highly adaptable, opportunistic animals. So what looks a bit like craftiness or cunning actually boils down to certain biological traits. The fact that they will eat pretty much anything, they're not fussy in any way. They've evolved really, really specialised predatory senses to catch very specialised rodent escapers. They're rapid learners. We know that they can, for example, learn to avoid crossing roads in cities during the daytime. And they'll only do it after midnight, which coincides with when there's less traffic on the roads. They can remember where they've stashed food and recover that food appropriately, and they can be bold and exploratory. And particularly in the human environment, they've adapted incredibly well to the presence of humans. You know, they've learnt how we operate, how we behave and they've capitalised on it so that they can exploit our environment.

So, all of that packaged together probably gives the impression that they're using their wits to get ahead. But actually there aren't very many scientific studies looking at fox cognitive abilities and there's certainty, no evidence that I know of that says that foxes can use tactical deception to get ahead.

Comments

Thank you for your article and podcast about foxes.
Here in Australia they are classified as a pest and are being very actively eradicated mainly through baiting.
A few days ago I read an article about a fox in the Pilliga forest of New South Wales who is managing to evade being caught (and killed) despite an extensive use of technology such as cameras to assist with its capture - see link to article on the ABC website below. The point of difference in this article is that it states that the fox has become aware of camera locations and is actively avoiding them. This suggests that the fox has linked the cameras to being caught and it has also avoided almost 3,000 baits.

I consider this fox to be exceptionally smart and that it deserves to survive. I am not sure what argument I can put to the park rangers. The real issue is that we humans are responsible for the decimation in the numbers of wildlife but we keep seeking scapegoats to deflect attention from our role.

I thought this article would be of interest to you.

Kind regards

Liz Burton

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