8 Things You Didn't Know About the Red Fox

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes
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The red fox is the most widely distributed member of the order Carnivora, found on five continents across a range of environments, from the Arctic Circle to near the Sahara Desert. Although appearances vary, the graceful, dog-like creatures are generally characterized by their fiery red-orange coats, long snouts, black-tipped ears and feet, and fluffy, white-tipped tails. While populous enough to be called pests in some parts of the world, not all subspecies of the red fox are thriving. Learn more fascinating facts about these majestic creatures and what you can do to support the conservation efforts surrounding them.

1. Red Foxes Aren't Always Red

Red fox with black fur standing on a rock
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The storybook version of a red fox is never without a luscious coat of rust-colored fur. In reality, subspecies' looks can differ drastically, from grey to blackish-brown, platinum to amber, and even a very elusive white morph. Some of the most well-known non-red variations include the silver fox, covered in black fur with white tips, and the partially melanistic cross fox, with its striking coal-black patches.

2. There Are 45 Subspecies of Red Fox

Cross Fox Standing on Tree Trunk in Forest Captive
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Color isn't the only variation among them, either. There are 45 recognized subspecies of red fox (by far the most widespread of the fox family), including the ezo red fox, which inhabits the islands of Russia and Japan; the Arabian red fox, with its huge ears, adapted for desert dwelling; and the Trans-Caucasian fox, found in northeastern parts of Turkey. The most elusive is the Sierra Nevada red fox, thought to have only about 50 remaining individuals.

3. They're the Largest Foxes in the World

Red Fox Looking at Camera with Beautiful Winter Coat at Fire Island National Seashore
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

The red fox is the largest of all 21 Vulpes vulpes species in the world. In addition to its elongated body and skull, it has a tail that nearly doubles its length. The average red fox is between 17 and 35 inches long and stands roughly 16 inches tall. Although most weigh between 10 and 15 pounds, they can reach 30 pounds on occasion.

4. They're Highly Athletic

Fox kit jumping
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Even though an adult red fox is only about half as tall as a toddler, it would likely have no problem jumping over a fence six feet tall. These athletic creatures are known for pouncing on mice and other small rodents burrowing in the snow, using the earth's magnetic field to help them hunt. They can run at speeds of up to 30 mph, handy for escaping bears, mountain lions, coyotes, or any other predator that may come after them.

5. Their Forepaws Have an Extra Toe

Napping red fox
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The complex paws of the red fox include fur over the footpads — which helps keep them warm, sense prey, and muffle their approach — and an extra digit on the two front feet. Whereas the back feet have only four digits apiece, the forepaws have five. The dewclaw, as it's called, is located higher than the other toes on the back of the leg and provides traction when the fox is running at high speeds on slippery ground. Many birds, reptiles, and mammals (including dogs) have this extra toe, but the red fox has it only on two feet.

6. Red Foxes Have Ultrasonic Hearing

Red Fox In Algonquin
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Their piercing eyes and pointy ears are two of their most distinguishing features, but both serve very practical purposes. Red foxes have good visual acuity, used for seeing small movements from far away and navigating dense forests as they sprint around after prey, but their most useful sense is their ultrasonic hearing. A 2014 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Czech University of Life Sciences reported that red foxes have the best known maximal absolute hearing sensitivity of any mammal. They can hear a mouse squeak from 100 feet away.

7. They Can Be Found in More Than 80 Countries

Fox in snowdrift.
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Red foxes are said to be the most widespread land mammals on earth. The 45 subspecies can be found in 83 countries on every continent except South America and Antarctica, a range spanning an astonishing 27 million square miles. They inhabit the mountains of North America and the deserts of the Middle East alike. They've even been introduced in Australia, where they threaten native mammals and birds. For that, they've earned a spot on the Invasive Species Specialist Group's "100 top invasive species" list.

8. One Subspecies Is Critically Endangered

Sierra Red Fox at Crater Lake
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But widespread as they are, and invasive as some subspecies may be, some populations are on the decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists the red fox, as a whole, as a least-concern species, but the Korean fox, for instance, is endangered due to habitat loss, poisoning, and being poached for the fur industry.

The most endangered is the Sierra Nevada fox, one of the rarest mammals in North America. The subspecies now has only two known populations — both in California and containing likely fewer than 50 individuals. Conservation groups like Yosemite Conservancy are using remote cameras, scat surveys, and genetic analysis to study the animals further.

Save the Sierra Nevada Red Fox

  • Support research and conservation efforts by donating to Yosemite Conservancy, a California-based group gathering data on the rare subspecies to inform conservation strategies.
  • Keep off of protected land — like Sceirine Point Ranch in Bridgeport Valley — that could act as a buffer zone for mountain ecosystems.
  • Poaching is so prevalent because fox fur remains a hot commodity in the clothing industry. Do not support the illegal fur trade.
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