When is a fox not a ‘fox’?

6 Feb

During an early morning stroll along the trails, I heard significant noise in the scrub brush to my left. This wasn’t the quiet scratching of quail, so I stopped to listen. Soon, an animal darted across the trail barely 25 feet from me. I was surprised and pleased to see it was a small fox. But it wasn’t a ‘real’ fox.

The word ‘fox ‘originated from similar Old English (German, Dutch and Frisian) words meaning ‘bushy tail.’ Hence, ‘fox’ is a common name for about 37 species of small mammals belonging to the Canidae family (the canine family). However, only 12 species belong to the genus Vulpus, the ‘true fox’.

The animal that scooted across the trail in front of me was the common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, and not a ‘true fox.’ On the other hand, the gray fox, and the only other species of the genus Urocyon, the Channel Island Fox, have the distinction of being among the most primitive of the living canids. The first fossil evidence of the gray fox, found in southern Arizona, suggests that they lived 3.6 million years ago with the giant sloth and the early small horses.

What makes the gray fox different from the ‘true’ foxes (Vulpes ssp.), such as the red, kit and swift foxes? In contrast to all Vulpes and other related foxes, the gray fox has oval instead of slit-like eye pupils, like cats. Genetic analyses of all the fox-like canids confirmed that the gray fox is a distinct genus from the red foxes. Indeed, the gray fox genetically clusters with only two other ancient lineages, the Asian Raccoon dog and the African Bat-eared fox.

In the arid regions of south Texas, the gray fox may not be much bigger than overgrown cats. They typically have course gray hair with a salt-and-pepper appearance due to the mixture of black and white bands in their guard hairs. Their long bushy tails are ruddy-gray with a black tip. A distinctive marking of the gray fox is a black stripe running down the top of their tail. They also lack the black stockings typical of the red fox.

The gray fox is a solitary hunter and omnivorous. They prey on rabbits and rodents, but also fruit from shrubs and even cacti. Interestingly, the gray fox is quite agile. It readily climbs cliffs and even trees. Its ability to climb trees is shared only with the Asian raccoon dog among canids. At dusk, or shortly after, one might hear cat-like vocalizations, although not to be confused with a house cat. I have heard a fox off and on while sitting outside shortly after dark.

Not as curious and adaptable as the red fox, they are not commonly seen in daylight. But my morning stroll was early and under a cloudy sky. Perhaps my footsteps interrupted a late feeding or ‘cat nap’ under the brush.

A gray fox in the desert.

A gray fox in the desert.

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