Are foxes really cunning?
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?
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.