By Bill Bateman & Trish Fleming. Of all the species described as ‘urban adapters’, it is perhaps the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) that is most well-known. In Europe, foxes seem to have been hanging around towns and cities for centuries – certainly urban foxes were recorded around London in the 1800s . Today, the red fox has been recorded in over 114 cities across the globe  including Perth, here in Western Australia.
Foxes spread across the continent since being introduced into eastern Australia in the 1860s. Foxes seem to have reached the west on their own, first recorded west of Kalgoorlie in 1918, having apparently ‘surfed’ across the Nullabor on a ‘wave of rabbits’ – a favoured food.
In Australia, it is common knowledge that foxes are bad news for our native wildlife. We tend to think of this as happening out in the bush or in the farmlands. However foxes seem to do quite well in towns.
Foxes require both secure daytime rest sites and breeding sites (earths) , and even in towns, red foxes probably need to dig earths for denning. Patches of green space or wasteland will be important to them but foxes can also breed under the floorboards of occupied houses and derelict buildings in Bristol, UK . In the USA, all sorts of shelters, including road culverts and old barns, provide shelter for red foxes .
In Australia, foxes often use the thick growth of non-native plants such as lantana and blackberry in which to rest .
Roads can be a problem for any urban wildlife. Research in the UK showed that foxes avoided roads at their busiest times prior to midnight, and only crossed roads when they were much safer . Green corridors along power lines and streams and city parks also probably make safe routes for foxes.
Foxes will eat a broad range of food types and can also adapt to substantial local variation in food types available: in other words, they will eat anything that is available, regardless of where they are. Foxes love fruit, such as mulberries, grapes and figs and will eat insects and other invertebrates. More than half of the stomach contents of red foxes in central Zurich, Switzerland, was out of rubbish bins, especially fried chicken! . Refuse is a constant source of food and means that urban foxes may have access to an increased range of high nutrition food as well as a greater degree of seasonal food security than do rural foxes.
All this food means that fox densities of up to 37 individuals/km2 have been recorded in the UK , and 16 individuals/km2 were recorded for Melbourne Australia . Not only that, but a constant supply of high quality food may have an effect on the very appearance of urban foxes: a pattern of size increase in skull measurements has been recorded for fox populations in Denmark from 1862 to 2000, over which time there was an increase in access to human-sourced food sources .
But cities are not all good news for the fox. Road kill and direct human control is probably the biggest cause of death for the urban fox. In a review of urban carnivores  we found that road accident was a major cause of mortality in carnivores, responsible for up 40% of recorded fox deaths. This may be particularly bad for juveniles that are dispersing .
So, how do we find out more about urban foxes? Researchers at Murdoch and Curtin Universities have begun a project involving putting GPS collars on urban foxes to better understand how they use the urban matrix in Perth. Soon we will also have a better idea of what they are eating in the city, and how they avoid humans and other dangers. Who knows if foxes are here to stay? It is up to us to find out more about them across the many habitats they are able to survive in.
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- Bateman, P.W. and P.A. Fleming, Big city life: carnivores in urban environments. Journal of Zoology, London, 2012. 287: p. 1-23.
2 Comments Add yours
Hello Mr. Bateman and Ms. Fleming,
I really enjoyed how informative your article is! Living in a suburban community, I have witnessed quite a bit of wildlife in populated areas. I don’t have a lot of prior knowledge about this issue, but I’d like to study wildlife biology in college so hopefully I’ll become more familiar with it. Where I live, dear present a similar situation to that which the foxes are causing in Australia. I found it very interesting that the diet of the fox is affecting its physical attributes. To your knowledge, is this happening to any other species that are becoming increasingly urban?
Hi Maggie, I don’t know of any studies on deer but yes, there are a few other studies on urban carnivores that show changes in skull size with increases in urbanisation. It would not surprise me if it is quite common as many things can influence morphology – introduction of raccoon dogs into Europe changed the skull shape and diet of female red foxes in some places as they shifted their diet in response to competition.