This black fox was shot at Bassingbourn in Hertfordshire, England. It was photographed just before it was killed by a car:
It was assumed that this animal had been a fur farm escapee, for melanistic foxes are quite uncommon in the British Isles.
A DNA test was performed.
It was revealed to be an 18-month-old red fox, but its gene for pigmentation was not the same as the typical black or silver fox gene.
Most of the media attention was focused on how this animal could have been one of the Belyaev tame foxes, but that’s not what’s most interesting.
If it had been one of Belyaev’s tame foxes, then it would make sense that a tame one could have been brought into England as a pet. However, these foxes would be subject to quarantine, and there would be a record of their import. Further, all of those tame foxes that have been sold as pets arrive neutered.
This fox was a male, so it would have been mentioned if it had been neutered.
However, what’s much more interesting is the potential source for the pigmentation gene.
In profile, this fox looks really weird. It has really shaggy fur, and it has a pronounced stop.
Could it have had some raccoon dog ancestry?
Both raccoon dogs and red foxes have been bred on fur farms for decades.
Recent genetic research has revealed that raccoon dogs are actually foxes, but they are quite distantly related to red foxes, last sharing a common ancestor somewhere around 4-5 million years ago.
They are at the edge of when two species start to the ability hybridize.
However, if this gene were introduced into farmed red foxes through crossbreeding with raccoon dogs, it actually does make sense. (If it were possible.)
For decades, the Soviet Union was cut off from the West, and the main source for silver foxes was North America. Almost all silver foxes in captivity today can trace to wild population in the Canadian Maritimes.
Because the Russians were cut off, they likely were trying to do lots of things to improve their fur stock. Part of what Belyaev was trying to do was improve the fur farmed stock.
Could the Soviets have been crossing raccoon dogs with silver foxes in order to increase pelt quality and the black color?
Both male and female red fox and arctic fox hybrids– which are closer relatives than red foxes and raccoon dogs–are sterile, so if this animal is a hybrid between these two species, we have lots of questions that need to be answered.
If we occasionally get fertile raccoon dog/silver fox hybrids, then why are arctic fox and silver fox hybrids sterile?
I would be surprised if this animal had been a first cross between a raccoon dog and a red fox. If it had been, it would have had more raccoon dog ancestry than just this gene.
More genetic studies need to be performed on this fox.
We may have found nothing more than a really novel genetic mutation for melanism in the red fox than we have not seen before.
But the hypothesis that this gene could have entered the farmed red fox population through cross-breeding needs to be explored.
This unusual fox is really strange.
The DNA evidence just makes things even more intriguing.
Update (5/31/12) I’ve been unable to find any confirmation of the raccoon dog gene in any other source.
Therefore, I’m going to say that it’s most likely not a hybrid.
It’s just a fox with a similar mutation to those that exist in raccoon dogs.