1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fox

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FOX, a name (female, “vixen”[1]) properly applicable to the single wild British representative of the family Canidae (see Carnivora) , but in a wider sense used to denote fox-like species from all parts of the world, inclusive of many from South America which do not really belong to the same group. The fox was included by Linnaeus in the same genus with the dog and the wolf, under the name of Canis vulpes, but at the present day is regarded by most naturalists as the type of a separate genus, and should then be known as Vulpes alopex or Vulpes vulpes. From dogs, wolves, jackals, &c., which constitute the genus Canis in its more restricted sense, foxes are best distinguished by the circumstance that in the skull the (postorbital) projection immediately behind the socket for the eye has its upper surface concave, with a raised ridge in front, in place of regularly convex. Another character is the absence of a hollow chamber, or sinus, within the frontal bone of the forehead. Foxes are likewise distinguished by their slighter build, longer and bushy tail, which always exceeds half the length of the head and body, sharper muzzle, and relatively longer body and shorter limbs. Then again, the ears are large in proportion to the head, the pupil of the eye is elliptical and vertical when in a strong light, and the female has six pairs of teats, in place of the three to five pairs found in dogs, wolves and jackals. From the North American grey foxes, constituting the genus or subgenus Urocyon, the true foxes are distinguished by the absence of a crest of erectile long hairs along the middle line of the upper surface of the tail, and also of a projection (subangular process) to the postero-inferior angle of the lower jaw. With the exception of certain South African species, foxes differ from wolves and jackals in that they do not associate in packs, but go about in pairs or are solitary.

From the Scandinavian peninsula and the British Islands the range of the fox extends eastwards across Europe and central and northern Asia to Japan, while to the south it embraces northern Africa and Arabia, Persia, Baluchistan, and the north-western districts of India and the Himalaya. On the North American side of the Atlantic the fox reappears. With such an enormous geographical range the species must of necessity present itself under a considerable number of local phases, differing from one another to a greater or less degree in the matters of size and colouring. By some naturalists many of these local forms are regarded as specifically distinct, but it seems better and simpler to class them all as local phases or races of a single species primarily characterized by the white tip to the tail and the black or dark-brown hind surface of the ear. The “foxy red” colouring of the typical race of north-western Europe is too well known to require description. From this there is a more or less nearly complete gradation on the one hand to pale-coloured forms like the white-footed fox (V. alopex leucopus) of Persia, N.W. India and Arabia, and on the other to the silver or black fox (V. a. argentatus) of North America which yields the valuable silver-tipped black fur. Silver foxes apparently also occur in northern Asia.

To mention all the other local races would be superfluous, and it will suffice to note that the North African fox is known as V. a. niloticus, the Himalayan as V. a. montanus, the Tibetan as V. a. wadelli, the North American red or cross fox as V. a. pennsylvanicus, and the Alaskan as V. a. harrimani; the last named, like several other animals from Alaska, being the largest of its kind.

The cunning and stratagem of the fox have been proverbial for many ages, and he has figured as a central character in fables from the earliest times, as in Aesop, down to “Uncle Remus,” most notably as Reynard (Raginohardus, strong in counsel) in the great medieval beast-epic “Reynard the Fox” (q.v.). It is not unlikely that, owing to the conditions under which it now lives, these traits are even more developed in England than elsewhere. In habits the fox is to a great extent solitary, and its home is usually a burrow, which may be excavated by its own labour, but is more often the usurped or deserted tenement of a badger or a rabbit. Foxes will, however, often take up their residence in woods, or even in water-meadows with large tussocks of grass, remaining concealed during the day and issuing forth on marauding expeditions at night. Rabbits, hares, domesticated poultry, game-birds, and, when these run short, rats, mice and even insects, form the chief diet of the fox. When living near the coast foxes will, however, visit the shore at low water in search of crabs and whelks; and the old story of the fox and the grapes seems to be founded upon a partiality on the part of the creature for that fruit. Flesh that has become tainted appears to be specially acceptable; but it is a curious fact that on no account will a fox eat any kind of bird of prey.

After a gestation of from 60 to 65 days, the vixen during the month of April gives birth to cubs, of which from five to eight usually go to form a litter. When first born these are clothed with a uniform slaty-grey fur, which in due course gives place to a coat of more tawny hue than the adult livery. In a year and a half the cubs attain their full development; and from observations on captive specimens it appears that the duration of life ought to extend to some thirteen or fourteen years. In the care and defence of her young the vixen displays extraordinary solicitude and boldness, altogether losing on such occasions her accustomed timidity and caution. Like most other young animals, fox-cubs are exceedingly playful, and may be seen chasing one another in front of the mouth of the burrow, or even running after their own tails.

Young foxes can be tamed to a certain extent, and do not then emit the well-known odour to any great degree unless excited. The species cannot, however, be completely domesticated, and never displays the affectionate traits of the dog. It was long believed that foxes and dogs would never interbreed; but several instances of such unions have been recorded, although they are undoubtedly rare. When suddenly confronted in a situation where immediate escape is impossible, the fox, like the wolf, will not hesitate to resort to the death-feigning instinct. Smartness in avoiding traps is one of the most distinctive traits in the character of the species; but when a trap has once claimed its victim, and is consequently no longer dangerous, the fox is always ready to take advantage of the gratuitous meal.

Red fox-skins are largely imported into Europe for various purposes, the American imports alone formerly reaching as many as 60,000 skins annually. Silver fox is one of the most valuable of all furs, as much as £480 having been given for an unusually fine pair of skins in 1902.

Of foxes certainly distinct specifically from the typical representative of the group, one of the best known is the Indian Vulpes bengalensis, a species much inferior in point of size to its European relative, and lacking the strong odour of the latter, from which it is also distinguished by the black tip to the tail and the pale-coloured backs of the ears. The corsac fox (V. corsac), ranging from southern Russia and the Caspian provinces across Asia to Amurland, may be regarded as a northern representative of the Indian species; while the pale fox (V. pallidus), of the Suakin and Dongola deserts, may be regarded as the African representative of the group. Possibly the kit-fox (V. velox), which has likewise a black tail-tip and pale ears, may be the North American form of the same group. The northern fennec (V. famelicus), whose range extends apparently from Egypt and Somaliland through Palestine and Persia into Afghanistan, seems to form a connecting link between the more typical foxes and the small African species properly known as fennecs. The long and bushy tail in the northern species has a white tip and a dark gland-patch near the root, but the backs of the ears are fawn-coloured. The enormous length of the ears and the small bodily size (inferior to that of any other member of the family) suffice to distinguish the true fennec (V. zerda) of Algeria and Egypt, in which the general colour is pale and the tip of the relatively short tail black. South of the Zambezi the group reappears in the shape of the asse-fox or fennec, (V. cama), a dark-coloured species, with a black tip to the long, bushy tail and reddish-brown ears.

Passing from South Africa to the north polar regions of both the Old and the New World, inclusive of Iceland, we enter the domain of the Arctic fox (V. lagopus), a very distinct species characterized by the hairy soles of its feet, the short, blunt ears, the long, bushy tail, and the great length of the fur in winter. The upper parts in summer are usually brownish and the under parts white; but in winter the whole coat, in this phase of the species, turns white. In a second phase of the species, the colour, which often displays a slaty hue (whence the name of blue fox), remains more or less the same throughout the year, the winter coat being, however, recognizable by the great length of the fur. Many at least of the “blue fox” skins of the fur-trade are white skins dyed. About 2000 blue fox-skins were annually imported into London from Alaska some five-and-twenty years ago. Arctic foxes feed largely on sea-birds and lemmings, laying up hidden stores of the last-named rodents for winter use.

The American grey fox, or Virginian fox, is now generally ranged as a distinct genus (or a subgenus of Canis) under the name of Urocyon cinereo-argentatus, on account of being distinguished, as already mentioned, by the presence of a ridge of long erectile hairs along the upper surface of the tail and of a projection to the postero-inferior angle of the lower jaw. The prevailing colour of the fur of the upper parts is iron-grey.

The so-called foxes of South America, such as the crab-eating fox (C. thous), Azara's fox (C. azarae), and the colpeo (C. magellanicus), are aberrant members of the typical genus Canis. On the other hand, the long-eared fox or Delalande's fox (Otocyon megalotis) of south and east Africa represents a totally distinct genus.

See St George Mivart, Dogs, Jackals, Wolves and Foxes (London, 1890); R. I. Pocock, “Ancestors and Relatives of the Dog,” in The Kennel Encyclopaedia (London, 1907). For fox-hunting, see Hunting. (R. L.*)


  1. The word is common to the Teutonic languages, cf. Dutch vos, Ger. Fuchs; the ultimate origin is unknown, but a connexion has been suggested with Sanskrit puccha, tail. The feminine “vixen” represents the O. Eng. fyxen, due to the change from o to y, and addition of the feminine termination -en, cf. O. Eng. gyden, goddess, and Ger. Füchsin, vixen. The v, for f, is common in southern English pronunciation; vox, for fox, is found in the Ancren Riwle, c. 1230.