Posts Tagged ‘American red fox’

audubon's cross fox

There is a famous myth in North American wildlife. It has been repeated so many times and by people of such impeccable authority over the years that it really hasn’t been questioned.

The story goes as follows:  Red foxes were not found south of the boreal regions of New York and New England, and in order to get red fox-hunting established in the English colonies south of those regions, red foxes were imported from England.  Therefore, all red foxes living the Eastern and Midwestern US, except those in the aforementioned northern regions of the North east, are derived from English imports. Thus, the red fox is a fully invasive species in the most of the East, most of the Midwest, and the entire South.

Stories about when the red fox first arrived in a region are written as a sort of passage.  For example, in William Henry Bishop’s history of Roane County, West Virginia, the author makes a rather pointed discussion about the extinction of the gray fox in that county around the year 1882 and the triumph of the red fox in agricultural areas.  The history of the modern running Walker foxhound is intimately tied to the arrival of the red fox in Kentucky in the 1850s.  Had the red fox not colonized Kentucky, it is very unlikely that this hound would have ever been bred.

It was always assumed that the red fox derived from those English imports that were brought over in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but the documentation on these arrivals is rather dubious at best.

The origins of this myth come from Pehr Kalm, the Swedish naturalist who traveled extensively in the English colonies in the 1700s. He claimed that a wealthy person in New England brought the foxes over from England and that all the red foxes of New England were thus derived from his imports. The other story goes that tobacco merchants in Maryland brought red foxes to the Eastern Shore in the early 1700s in attempt to introduce this fox to their part of North America.  They did well in that region, even spreading into Delaware and Pennsylvania, but it took a hard freeze of Chesapeake Bay in the winter of 1789-90 to give the foxes passage into the main part of Virginia, where they thrived. Some stories say the foxes came from Germany or France rather than England, but in all cases, the story goes that the red fox is an import.

A recent evaluation of these stories by Jennifer Frey of New Mexico State University shows that none of these stories is particularly well-documented.  Both of these stories were derived from second-hand sources, pretty much the historical equivalent of stories you might hear at the barber shop or the local cafe.

This analysis came at about the same time that several genetic studies were being performed on red foxes in North America. The first mitochondrial DNA study of North American red foxes revealed the existence of no Old World red fox lineages in the Eastern or Southeastern US.  The authors found that the Southeastern red foxes were very closely related to foxes in Eastern Canada and that their likely origin came about through natural range expansion.

The second study examined large amounts of nuclear DNA and the y-chromosomes of red foxes from throughout the world.  It found that red foxes in North America, including those that live in the Southeast and Eastern US have been genetically isolated from Old World red foxes for 400,000 years.  The only Old World red foxes that have contributed to North American red fox genetics since that isolation are those found in Alaska, which have a mitochondrial DNA lineage that was introduced from Russia some 50,000 years ago.

The red fox of the Eastern US came south from Canada in much the same way that the coyote came East:  by its own feet. Clearing off the land to establish settlements made it harder and harder for Eastern gray foxes to live in an area, and it is actually well-established in the literature that the Eastern gray fox, which is roughly the same size as a red fox in terms of body mass, will tend to dominate the red when the two occur in the same region.

Further, more open agricultural land is very good habitat for mice and rabbits, and the red fox prefers to hunt those species, while the gray fox is much more omnivorous.

So the cleared forests are much better for the red than for the gray, and the gray

The coming of the red fox was almost always associated with European settlement, and thus, it became an assumption that the foxes came from England or from somewhere in Europe.

And perhaps subconsciously, it came to be accepted as the absolute truth that red foxes are an invasive species brought over by man.

It has only been in recent years that these fanciful notions have been tested as hypotheses, and they have been found to be wanting when examined through careful historical research and analysis of genetic material.

So this myth has been put to bed. I really wish people would stop promoting these erroneous romantic stories about red foxes and start to respect them as native wildlife.

Of course, this problem is a lot more complicated in California, where there is a native red fox subspecies and the Eastern red fox has also been introduced– and the Eastern red fox does behave as an invasive species.

But for my part of the world, the red fox came here on its own volition, and as the forests return, habitat conditions greatly favor the gray fox, making life much harder for these Canadian wanderers once again.

Wildlife distributions are not static.

Red foxes are known from the Pleistocene in Virginia, and though they were absent through much of the Holocene, they are now thriving in much of the East and South because of anthropogenic factors.

I should note that one reason I became skeptical of the claims of the English origins of the Eastern red fox is that the Eastern red fox has always been a widely trapped animal. Even the ones trapped in relatively temperate states have been well-known for having good pelts, but it is widely known that red fox pelts from England are not valuable at all. Red foxes are heavily hunted as vermin in England, and I always wondered why no one ever tried to do anything with their pelts. It turns out that the reason is that their pelts are of inferior quality to North American red foxes.

The reason why is that England is a much more temperate place than Eastern Canada, and the foxes that roam the East have their origins in that cold country and not the gentle green country off the northwest of Europe.

So red foxes came from Canad, not England. I think we can at least say this is true, and their supposed European origins are simply a myth.






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