SciSun: Out on a Limb   Leave a comment

Canidea is the group of species that includes all dogs and close dog-relatives, current and extinct: Wolves; coyotes; foxes; and even your pet pooch. (But not the ‘dog-fish’, ‘flying fox’, or ‘sea-wolf’. It seems people just like to name things after dogs). And all Canis similar characteristics in common: The prefer to live in small family groups, usually working together; communicate by scent and vision; and are carnivores with long legs (better for running!); long muzzles (better for chewing!); and long, bushy tails (better for….wagging).

Within the Canid genealogy, it seems all dogs all branch from the same family tree. One species, though, takes the concept a bit further and doesn’t just belong on the family tree, but actually climbs that tree – and any other tree it finds. The Grey Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is the only canid that can, and regularly does, climb trees for food, protection, scouting, and probably, just for fun, too. While foxy can’t climb straight up the tree trunk like a cat, bear or raccoon, he uses branches as something of a ladder, jumping to any tree limb within about three feet off the ground, then progressing upward until the branches are too small to support the foxes weight, or he’s just reached the height he wants. But he still might not be completely comfortable in his lofty lair, as despite thousands of years of evolution the only way he can leave the tree is by very carefully moving downward from branch to branch – a sometimes dangerous maneuver – or by backing down the trunk tail first like a cat, a rather awkward and undignified enterprise. Still, there are no reports of Grey Fox being caught in trees and needing to be rescued by the fire department! (Although we are not convinced cats are ever actually trapped in trees – they just learned if they wait long enough, someone will come and carry them out).

An historical native of much of the United States, particularly areas that were heavily-forested (which, hundreds of years ago, was much of the Eastern US), in most areas the Grey Fox outnumbered the now-more common Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). But as time progressed and human development grew, fewer and fewer woodlands remained; the Gray Fox retreated to more remote and less-disturbed areas with protected forests.  Today the most dense populations are located in the Western forests of Oregon and Northern California, while the less-inhibited Red Fox grew in numbers and territory and in areas where both types are found, the red fox is now the dominant species. (If you live in the East; South; or Midwest in suburbs or any place that isn’t a dense city, there’s a good chance red fox regularly visit your neighborhood. Some hipster foxes have even been reported inside major metropolitan areas. But while possibly more daring than his grey cousin, you may never see any fox because all types are secretive and more active during dawn, dusk, and at night. There’s a good chance you could smell a fox, though!).

"OH, no I'm not stuck at all.  This is exactly where I wanted to be.  The branch jammed under my front leg is much more comfortable than it looks. "

“OH, no I’m not stuck at all. This is exactly where I wanted to be. The branch jammed under my front leg is much more comfortable than it looks. “

An omnivore, the Grey Fox hunts small animals such as mice, voles, grasshoppers and crickets, They love birds eggs (where the tree-climbing comes in handy!), and will also eat berries, corn, apples, and nuts. A very-closely related species, the Channel Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis), a now endangered animal found on only six small islands off the coast of Southern California and the smallest fox in the world, measuring only about a foot long and weighing about five pounds, also ranking it as one of the smallest of all canid species. Recent research shows this mini-fox is the direct relative of mainland Grey Fox, descended from animals transported to the islands by Native Peoples thousands of years ago. Fox, it seems, would not be the best meal so it’s probable the foxes were brought as pets or hunting companions. Over thousands of years due to limited diet and harsh living conditions the foxes decreased in size, the humans left, and now the little animals are the most significant land predator in their environment. Just like the characters of that 1960’s TV show, what started out as a pleasant afternoon cruise resulted in the group stranded on a desert island. But oddly enough, during the entire schedule of that show the Skipper never became any smaller.

Among canids, the only other tree-climber is the Asian Raccoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), a unique animal that genetically is more dog than fox, but looks more raccoon than dog. While tree-climbing isn’t generally considered a dog-prerequisite, over millennia of evolution each species develops behaviors and characteristics that allow it to survive and thrive not only within it’s world, but in union with other species that share and complete a healthy environment. As humans, our history hasn’t usually been one of sharing, but let’s hope we make choices today that will benefit every species, not just ourselves. We wouldn’t want to be left out on a limb.


Michonne Says: I don’t see what’s so great about any foxes that climb trees or any foxes at all for that matter. They sneak around at night and chase small animals and can be really dangerous. But they’re better than any other type of wolf, if you have to have them, I guess.

Posted December 14, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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