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Grey Fox

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

Everything You Need To Know About The Grey Fox

Grey fox, also spelled as gray fox, is a mammal found in Central and North Americas. The omnivorous animal belongs to the Canidae family. It is one of the two surviving members of Urocyon genus. The other species being island fox. The grey fox was once the most thriving species among all canids in the United States, especially the eastern regions. The red fox is now the most dominant species right now. The western states, notably those along the coast, still have the grey fox as the most dominant species. Grey fox is the only canid in America that has the ability to climb trees.

History of the Grey Fox

The specific region and precise time of the origin of grey fox is yet to be ascertained. According to most studies and the oldest fossil evidence, the grey fox is believed to have appeared in the Americas around three and a half million years ago. The oldest fossil was found in Arizona. It is from the Hemphillian land animal age, which is during the mid Pliocene Epoch. Many other species of animals found in North America date back to the same era, such as giant sloth, large headed llama and small horses. Early studies led to a belief that grey fox and red fox were the same species. Genetic analyses carried out later confirmed that it is a distinct genus and hence cannot be classified as red fox.

According to genetic analyses, grey fox has two lineages. One is raccoon dog found in East Asia. The other is bat eared fox found in Africa. Grey fox has a chromosome number of sixty six and its fundamental number is seventy. Its autosomes have thirty one pairs of subacrocentrics and one pair of metacentrics. The grey fox is believed to have migrated to northeastern America during the post Pleistocene Epoch during the warming trend that is now referred to as Medieval Climate Anomaly. Extensive genetic analyses have suggested that the eastern grey fox has mitochondrial differences with the western grey fox.

Island fox is a smaller relative of grey fox. It descended from grey fox. It is unclear if grey foxes first migrated on their own or humans were responsible for their movement from one region to another. There is reason to believe that humans transported grey foxes across islands. Since its first arrival in the Americas, the grey fox has spread far and wide, down to Colombia and Venezuela.

Description of Grey Fox

Grey foxes often look similar to other canids. They do have a few distinct features though. The upper parts of a grey fox are grizzles. There is a black stripe running down the tail. It has a strong neck. The skull has widely segregated temporal ridges. These form the u-shape that is used to distinguish grey fox from other foxes. Female grey fox is a tad smaller than the males, but otherwise there is very little to tell them apart.

A grey fox can be anywhere from seventy six up to a hundred and thirteen centimeters long. It’s tail ranges from twenty seven to forty four centimeters in length. The hind feet are a hundred to a hundred and fifty millimeters. Its weight varies from eight pounds to sixteen pounds. Some grey foxes can be as heavy as twenty pounds. There are quite a few other distinct features of the grey fox, which can be used to differentiate them from other canids and accurately identify them. Grey foxes have black stockings. There is usually a stripe of black hair running along the tail. The guard hairs are white, black and grey. There are white patches on the throat, ears, chest, upper abdomen and hind limbs. Grey foxes have oval pupils. Other foxes typically have slit like pupils.

Habitat of Grey Fox

Grey foxes thrive in the Americas. The wooded and rocky parts of the southern regions of Canada have a substantial population of grey fox. The species is found in many regions down from Manitoba and southeastern Quebec through much of the United States and to the northern regions of Colombia and Venezuela in South America. Grey foxes are not found in the mountainous regions of northwestern U.S. The species is dominant in brushy areas of both South and North Americas.

Grey fox is a nocturnal animal. It lives in dens. These dens could be in stumps or trees. They can also dig burrows. The burrows could be in the ground, a tree or stump, beneath rocks or somewhere thirty feet above the ground. Historically, deciduous forests have been the natural habitat of the grey fox. It is now found in other forests as well.

Behavior of Grey Fox

The most noteworthy ability of the grey fox is climbing trees. The only other canid that has this capability is the raccoon dog found in East Asia. Grey foxes have strong and hooked claws. These come handy to climb the trees. Climbing trees is not really a fun activity for grey foxes. It is a defense mechanism. It scrambles up accessible trees when predators are nearby. Grey fox is hunted by coyotes and also the domesticated dogs.

Grey foxes also climb trees in search of food. They can climb trunks that are almost vertical. They can manage to climb trees without branches. They can climb as high as eighteen meters and can also jump from one branch to another. Its descent is either backward or jumping from a higher branch to a lower one till it can safely land on the ground.

Reproduction of Grey Fox

Grey fox is monogamous. There is a distinct breeding season but it varies from one region to another, primarily due to the variations in climate. In the state of Michigan, grey foxes mate in March. In the state of Alabama, mating or breeding usually peaks in February. Grey foxes have a gestation period of around fifty three days. The size of litter can be between one and seven. A female grey fox can reproduce an average of four kits.

Females attain sexual maturity in ten months. The kits are capable of hunting with the parents when they are around three months old. The kits have permanent dentition by the fourth month and can venture out by themselves. However, families of grey foxes usually stay together till autumn. This is when the males attain sexual maturity. Most families disperse after the kits mature.

The male grey foxes are more adventurous and tend to disperse up to fifty miles and sometimes farther. The female grey foxes do not venture as far. They tend to remain within two miles or so and have the tendency to return to the den where they were born and raised. Adult grey foxes tend to stay together. They do not have the urge to disperse, regardless of gender.

Grey foxes have the habit of denning but they do not always look for a den throughout the year. Denning is more common during the breeding and whelping season. Male grey foxes attain fertility earlier and they can also retain fertility much longer than the females. Grey foxes can build dens in trees, logs, rocks and burrows. Abandoned dens also serve the purpose.

Diet of Grey Fox

Grey foxes are omnivorous. Adult grey foxes hunt alone. The diet of grey fox includes eastern cottontail, voles, birds and shrews. Along the Pacific and particularly in California, grey foxes hunt for rodents and lagomorphs, such as jackrabbit and brush rabbit. In Western United States, grey foxes are herbivorous and insectivorous. They eat fruits and vegetables. There is no specific preference for a certain fruit or vegetable. It eats whatever is more conveniently available.

Grey Fox vs. Other Canids

Canids are confusing. It is easy to mistake a red fox as a grey fox. Coyotes too have several similar features. Those who are well familiar with grey fox can easily tell them apart from red fox and coyote. Others might struggle and thus it is necessary to make a note of the differentiating factors. There are a few definitive and some subtle signs.

Red foxes can be grey or black. They can be white too. The red color is obvious but it cannot be the sole differentiating factor. It is the most common but grey, black or white can become perplexing. A definitive determining or identifying factor is the black boots. A red fox has black legs. The ears of red foxes have black tips when seen from the backside. Their tail is white tipped. Red foxes have a face that resembles the facial appearance of a dog. Red foxes can be easily identified by their black legs, white tipped tail and black tipped ears.

Grey foxes can also be hard to identify because they can be brown or red in appearance. Grey is the most common color but brown, red or a blend of shades is not rare. Grey foxes can be identified by their black tipped tail. The black stripe along their back is also a distinct feature. Neither of these two physical features is found in the red fox. The face of a grey fox is more like that of a cat, not a dog. This too becomes a differentiating factor between red and grey foxes.

Coyotes can be harder to distinguish compared to grey and red foxes. Coyotes are brown, black or grey. Their face looks like that of dog. Their tail is fluffy and long. Yet, it is possible to easily distinguish a coyote. Its legs or limbs are much longer. Its snout and ears are also longer. Coyotes look taller and larger than both red and grey foxes. This is partly whey coyotes can prey on grey foxes, and the latter are afraid of the former.

One of the problems in identifying or differentiating these canids is the time when you may spot them. Since grey foxes are nocturnal and you are likely to bump into one during or past twilight, there may not be adequate light for you to ascertain whether or not it is some other canid. Also, it is not always possible to get a good look at the ears, back, tail or limbs to know for sure if a species is grey fox, red fox or coyote. Practice can make a lot of difference.

Coyotes are larger than grey and red foxes. The face of a red fox resembles the facial appearance of a dog. The face of a grey fox resembles that of a cat. Look for the distinct stripes and you will have an easier time. Grey foxes are not a threat to humans. They are actually afraid of humans. They will either run away instantly as they spot a human or behave in a coy manner and try to hide. Grey foxes do not chase humans. They do not attempt to get close or go for a bite. This is true for both kits and adult grey foxes.

Conservation Status of Grey Fox

Grey fox is not an endangered species. It is not under any kind of threat as a species. Hence, it is not classified as threatened or endangered on any list, whether of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or of specific countries, such as the United States and Canada. However, there is a threat and it is loss of habitat.

Deforestation, industrialization and urbanization have already compelled grey foxes along with other canids to migrate in several regions of North America. The species has been forced to change its dietary habit. It has also tried to adapt to different climates and terrains. Rampant deforestation and massive scale industrialization can lead to a significant loss of habitat, which may lead to a dwindling population of grey fox. The animal is also at risk of getting trapped and hunted. Deaths caused by vehicular accidents and other mishaps are also common. Despite all of these threats, grey fox is a thriving species in the United States, Canada, Colombia and Venezuela.

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