It may not look very distinct, but this is a red fox track. I wish I had come across it when the snow wasn’t half-melted away and slushy. It would have been a nice photo addition to the blog.
But the best I can do is this nondescript smudge in the slush. It will do for now.
There is actually something of a taxonomic debate with red foxes these days.
For most of my life, it was accepted wisdom that all the red foxes living in the Eastern US south of the northern tier of New York State were derived from British imports that were brought over during the colonial period.
A few years ago, a mitochondrial DNA study revealed that red foxes living in the East were actually descended from the Eastern Canadian red fox population. and the same paper revealed that the historical records of red foxes in the East date only to the nineteenth century. The red fox came from Canada and New England because it was able to live well in the newly developed agricultural lands that were fully open by that time. (Open lands are bad for gray foxes, an entirely unrelated species, which dominates red foxes, but prefers living in dense woodland. Opening up the land but the gray in retreat, which may have allowed the red to expand its range.)
Which means that our red foxes are probably not derived from colonial imports.
But more recent study reveals that North American red foxes might not only not be derived from British imports. they might be a different species from the Old World red fox, which is found throughout Eurasia and parts of North Africa.
This study, performed by researchers at UC Davis, revealed that North American and Eurasian red foxes split from each other 400,000 years ago. Unlike the previous study, this one looked a large sample of genetic material and the y-chromosome of foxes from different parts of their vast range. The red fox lineage first began in the Middle East, then spread across the Northern Hemisphere.
I am a bit hesitant to say this study inherently means that we have to call North American red foxes a new species. All of these red fox populations are still chemically interfertile, and they essentially have the same niche. Furthermore, because red foxes don’t disperse far from their natal territories the way that wolves do, they are going to be a genetically diverse species. Indeed, smaller animals tend to have greater diversity as a species than larger ones do. The larger ones are usually fewer in number, and they tend spread out more, meaning their gene pools don’t have enough isolation to become as distinct.
My guess is that if similar studies were performed on least weasels and the weasel known variously as the short-tailed weasel, the ermine, or the stoat, we woul probably find even greater genetic variation between Old and New World populations. They are even smaller than foxes, but like the red fox, they are found across the Northern Hemisphere.
Whatever the taxonomic findings, it is pretty clear that red foxes are native wildlife. Their remains have been found in Virginia dating to the Pleistocene. They couldn’t handle living in the gray fox dominated forests that came about at the end of the last Ice Age and retreated into northern New England and Eastern Canada, which are still too cold for gray foxes to colonize.
This track in the snow was made a native, not a colonist.
Their tracks have padded the snow, the mud, and the sand throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Australian settlers, upset that they had no foxes to chase in the land of kangaroos, imported them for that purpose. Their tracks graced the Outback too.
Here is an animal that is typically smaller than a pug, but through its adaptability, it has been able become settled across a huge swathe of the continents.
And with the exception of Australia, it got there with its own wandering feet.
Amazing little red dog with the black stockings and the long bushy tail.