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A Tale of Two Foxes

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Until 1959 the North American red fox was considered a New World species (Vulpes fulva), separate to the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which is an Old World species.

Between 1959 and 2009, the North American red fox was categorized as vulpes vulpes. However, in 2009, with the use of modern gene mapping technology, scientists were able to confirm that the North American red fox separated from the European red fox family tree around 400,000 years ago and is a divergent form of the European red fox (as an idea, it is thought to be before modern humans evolved).

The North American red fox has 9 recognized subspecies (also recognized as V. fulva sp.):

  • the British Columbian fox (Vulpes vulpes abietorum)

  • the Northern Alaskan fox (Vulpes vulpes alascensis)

  • the Cascade Mountains red fox (vulpes vulpes cascadensis)

  • the American red fox (Vulpes vulpes fulvus)

  • the Wasatch or Rocky Mountain red fox (Vulpes vulpes macroura)

  • the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator)

  • the Sacramento Valley red fox (Vulpes vulpes patwin)

  • the Northern plains fox (Vulpes vulpes regalis)

  • the Nova Scotia fox (Vulpes vulpes rubricosa)

It was the native North American red fox that early European settlers began trapping for the fur trade, before they began island farming and eventually, commercial fur farming within farms. Two distinct Alaskan and Canadian lineages are still recognized within breeding pedigrees today, knowledge of which is important for understanding inheritance of the different colour and patterns and the resulting combinations produced.

Historical texts document the introduction of North American red fox to the British Isles from at least the nineteenth century, for the purposes of repopulation and then again in the twentieth century for the purposes of farming fur. This new understanding of fox family divergence is important for understanding why there may be an increase of melanism, unusual coat colours and even 'self-domestication' in red foxes in the British Isles today.

Collaborating with Black Foxes UK and other invested parties, the British Canid Historical Society, aims to identify evidence that suggests these novel genetics may exist in fox populations today and to establish at what extent.

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