The Red Fox: Observations of Learned vs Innate Behaviors

The Red Fox has so many and varied behaviors that it makes for an interesting study subject. It is also interesting to try to determine where innate actions end and learned ones take over.

Certainly what is eaten, and the urge to store the left-overs for later consumption, has to be an innate response. Likewise, the rising up on the hind legs to pounce on prey, as well as the urge to mark territory through urination – would, I think, be programmed at birth. Like all animals, their DNA code and resulting actions are inescapable.

But the fox demonstrates much that has to be learned and indicates a keen intelligence. The complex variety of vocalizations and certain hunting techniques would have to be copied from their parents. When parents bring back live rodents for the young to practice with, shows that school is definitely in session. Parents will also hold prey in their mouths, while moving their heads from side to side and up and down. This forces the pups to exercise and gain agility in their hunting movements.

A very good example of this animal’s intelligence is how they have learned to avoid the fox hunting chase by doubling back and running down the middle of a stream to erase their odor trail. Another intriguing behavior is called “charming”. Instead of dashing into a group of rabbits, who would then quickly escape, the fox will roll on the ground and chase its tail in a seemingly unconcerned attitude. The rabbits will curiously watch, but the predator slowly rolls close enough to suddenly spring and catch a rabbit.Is this behavior learned or innate? Your guess is as good as mine.

One fact, however, is that the more learning that is required – the more important play becomes amongst the young. Play also establishes dominance rankings and that reduces future adult conflicts.

A young fox checks me out

A young fox checks me out

Goss’s Rule and the Canines of Yellowstone

GOSS’S RULE states: “When two species share the same habitat, and also share the same niche, the dominant species will push its competition out.” This is classic between coyote, fox, and wolf. Yellowstone Park provides a situation where this rule is very noticeable. Before the introduction of wolves, there were many coyotes and fewer fox. Since their introduction, wolves have expanded greatly, coyote numbers have decreased, and the Red Fox population has increased.

It stands to reason that size plays a big role in the dominance of these three canines. Wolves, especially when hunting in family packs (usually 4 to 7), can bring down larger prey than coyotes – hunting alone or even cooperatively. Also, bigger groups contribute to a species ability to dominate, and larger canine will kill the smaller ones when they catch them. I have witnessed wolves chasing coyotes that were brazen enough to approach a carcass fed upon by wolves. I have seen coyotes escape, but also observed one that was unlucky. Because the Red Fox feeds mainly on smaller mammals and birds, it is not as competitive to the wolf as is the coyote – which has an expanded diet.

Gray wolves look like large German Shepard dogs. Coyotes are somewhat smaller, lighter in coloration, and have a more pointed face. The Red Fox is considerably smaller, with a slender body, reddish tinge to its fur, and with a white tail tip.

Vegetation eaters, when their populations increase, have the ability to destroy their own habitat. Thus, predators keep these populations in balance. Predators are also breeding selection factors for prey species. They weed out the weak, the diseased, and the old (who no longer reproduce but still eat). Nature’s ways sound cruel, but they are necessary to keep herbivore numbers at the maximum that the habitat can withstand

A Gray Wolf: Top dog in the predator hierarchy

A Gray Wolf: Top dog in the predator hierarchy