Video: A Hunting Red Fox Demonstrates His Scientific Method

Candice Gaukel Andrews December 12, 2013 33
Red fox in Churchill

A red fox uses scientific principles to ensure hunting success. ©Brad Josephs

Watching a red fox hunt in the winter by slowly creeping forward, listening intently, and then jumping high to pounce on prey can be pretty entertaining, but it turns out there’s a lot of science behind all the wild, deep-snow diving.

A few years ago, Professor Hynek Burda of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and colleagues in the Czech Republic studying the hunting behavior of eighty-four wild red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) over a period of two years discovered that the animals are more successful if they leap on their prey when their heads are facing toward the north. After watching 592 hunting jumps made in different seasons and habitats and at different times of day, it was found that in long vegetation and snow, 72.5 percent of successful attacks were made when the foxes initially aligned themselves about 20 degrees off from magnetic north and that attacks from other directions were mostly unsuccessful.

Pouncing red fox in Yellowstone National Park

Foxes use an almost invariable pouncing behavior. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Burda says his favorite hypothesis is that the animals use the Earth’s magnetic field as a range finder. After setting itself along its preferred axis, a fox will tilt its head while listening for a mouse, creating an asymmetry in the height of the ears and thus a slight difference in the time it takes for the sounds of the mouse to reach each ear. The fox can then estimate the distance to its prey by moving forward until the sound is a fixed strength and aligns with the magnetic field. This would consistently place the fox at a fixed distance from its prey, allowing it to attack using an almost invariable pouncing behavior.

Other animals (such as cattle and deer) are known to be able to detect magnetic fields, aligning themselves roughly along north and south when resting. That way, the whole herd ends up pointing in the same direction, allowing it to rapidly determine an escape route, even when visual cues are lacking. But if Burda’s fox hypothesis is correct, the red fox would be the first animal ever known to use magnetic fields as an aid to hunting and the first to be shown to use them as aids for estimating distance rather than direction.

Watch the video below of a red fox exhibiting its natural ability to find prey in the depths of winter. Luckily, his scientific method is impeccable.

33 Comments »

  1. John LaPolla December 12, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Great film clip. They are a great hunter and to watch them jump and dive into the snow was so great. They are really a great animal to watch.

  2. Duane Mitchell December 12, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Very fascinating! There is so much we don’t know. Which means the opportunities to learn are endless!

  3. Phillip Tureck - FRGS December 12, 2013 at 9:28 am - Reply

    This was a brilliant video Candice, also so informative on the hunting skills of this fox. Who would have thought that this animal was locked into the earth’s gravity. One of my favourite images that I took was of a Mountain Fox in Cooke City, Montana.

    http://yosemitephilip.com/yellowstone_wyoming_montana_and_idaho .

  4. Carl Knauer December 13, 2013 at 6:32 am - Reply

    I would suspect that successful hunting from facing north would have more to do with having the sun at its back (midday in the winter) than the earth’s magnetic field. Having the sun in its eyes from facing to the south would tend to be a distraction resulting in less success. When I am trying to approach wildlife, I always want the sun at my back. It helps my focus and impairs the wildlife’s focus. As to how magnetism would help locating mice under snow, I don’t understand how that would work, given that neither fox nor mice are ferrous in composition.

  5. Neville Burns December 13, 2013 at 6:33 am - Reply

    This is amazing footage and shows a most determined animal, I loved it.

  6. Candice Gaukel Andrews December 13, 2013 at 6:38 am - Reply

    Carl,

    You may want to read the full text of the study here: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/03/01/rsbl.2010.1145.full

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. Jim O'Donnell December 13, 2013 at 8:36 am - Reply

    Thats amazing! I had no idea.

  8. Ella Jeans December 13, 2013 at 8:51 am - Reply

    love love love this video!!!

  9. Hugo Jan Trago December 13, 2013 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Amazing video! Thx for sharing.

  10. James "Jim" O'Donnell December 13, 2013 at 8:53 am - Reply

    fabulous!

  11. Norka Moya Solis December 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    wonderful video !

  12. Bill December 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    For the past five years I have studied the behavior of the gray fox so I know a little about these foxes, especially their intelligence. If they were using magnetic north and they were consistently getting food when in a northerly direction, I would imagine that the foxes would learn this and always align themselves in a northerly direction, but they don’t. Why not? Why would a fox exert energy by trying to catch something in say a westerly direction for instance when the odds are against the fox catching that field mouse? There must be something else going on here, or we are just not seeing the complete picture. BTW, I have watched gray fox hunt. From now on, I intend to pay attention to this northerly fix vs a non-northerly fix on its prey. I may uncover something there. See http://www.uwrp.wordpress.com

  13. Alex Kalinin December 14, 2013 at 7:53 am - Reply

    Hello Carl,
    If my memory serves me, foxes, mice, and humans are 90% of water which is not much worse than iron. The difference between us and foxes is the only one that we cannot find the north without a compass. Bad luck.

  14. Sandhya Das December 14, 2013 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Watched the whole series last summer..nature is just amazing! Just unbelievable that in this day and age of scientific progress, we are still discovering and learning how other animals using science in their daily lives.

  15. Larry Ehemann December 14, 2013 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Thanks Candice, Remarkable video.

  16. Chris du Plessis December 14, 2013 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    I love it!!!
    Ironic that we humans know and understand more about the moon than about our fellow creatures on earth.
    Isn’t he just gorgeous?

  17. Glynn Goulding December 14, 2013 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    I have witnessed this first hand It’s truly amazing to watch, of course my little red friend was not aware of my presence. I remember thinking how did he do that, how did he know something was there. I thought he was using his hearing to locate the little rodent. My only problem that day was I forgot my camera. It would seem we have a lot to learn about most animals, well almost any thing I guess. We like to think we know about the flora and fauna of various habitats, but do we.

  18. Carl Knauer December 14, 2013 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    Candice, I have read the entire article and I believe that the author is leaning too far past a hypothesis, and to close to a an accepted theory, given that apparently no research has yet taken place. This is an easy trap to fall into when you look at data (even with a limited sample size) that opens your eyes to something alarming to you. I have to catch myself being guilty of this from time to time and have to bring myself back to ‘Scientific Method C

  19. Bill Leikam December 14, 2013 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    For the past five years I have studied the behavior of the gray fox so I know a little about these foxes, especially their intelligence. If they were using magnetic north and they were consistently getting food when in a northerly direction, I would imagine that the foxes would learn this and always align themselves in a northerly direction, but they don’t. Why not? Why would a fox exert energy by trying to catch something in say a westerly direction for instance when the odds are against the fox catching that field mouse? There must be something else going on here, or we are just not seeing the complete picture. BTW, I have watched gray fox hunt. From now on, I intend to pay attention to this northerly fix vs a non-northerly fix on its prey. I may uncover something there. See http://www.uwrp.wordpress.com

  20. Geoff Settle December 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Thanks Candice I’ve just posted a link on the Warrington Nature Conservation Forum Facebook Site https://www.facebook.com/pages/Warrington-Nature-Conservation-Forum/110886079024465 Regards, Geoff Settle (Chair WNCF).

  21. Dianne Demarais December 14, 2013 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    Completely awesome! I agree with Chris Du Plessis. We are not in tune with much other than what is good for us… Am so glad you do these! Love every minute!

  22. Sarel Van der Merwe December 14, 2013 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    Candice, this really is amazing. I sincerely hope that my fellow scientists will finally come up with solid information regarding the north orientation. It may be of value to other research projects, even worldwide where canines are involved. Nature never seizes to amaze me. Kind regards.

  23. Sarel Van der Merwe December 16, 2013 at 7:55 am - Reply

    If one thinks of the magnetic north, the first thing that comes to mind is a magnetic field. From a magnetic field it is a short distance to electric current, and I wonder which provides the improved information when the fox faces north?

  24. Melissa Kelly December 16, 2013 at 7:55 am - Reply

    very cool :^)

  25. James White December 16, 2013 at 7:56 am - Reply

    They use all they have at their disposal to get the job done, or get dinner as the case maybe.

  26. Ma. José Harder Rodríguez December 16, 2013 at 7:58 am - Reply

    Very nice, thanks for sharing it!

  27. Mosheh Wolf December 16, 2013 at 7:59 am - Reply

    Foxes hunting under the snow are an amazing sight. I really hope that the higher hunting success while facing North turns out to be use of magnetic field, rather something mundane like prevailing winds or angle of sunlight.

  28. Philip Nichols December 16, 2013 at 8:00 am - Reply

    Tenebrio mollitor respond to a magnetic field. A ferrous receptor has not been found there! Maybe there is a bio-receptor that responds to a magnetic field. I do like the “sun in eyes” suggestion for daytime hunting on sunny days. Red fox are mostly nocturnal. What about left pawed vrs. right pawed, or dominant eye, or methods used hunting in various snow covered vole habitats – prairie, forest, farmland, hilly, flat, etc. ? Since the fox cocks it’s head it seems it is using sound to locate. Fox are fun to watch.

  29. Scott Hurd December 17, 2013 at 11:44 am - Reply

    It’s interesting how predators adapt to conditions. We’ve had a big drought in Namibia and one group of Jackals have made the most of it.

    A waterhole with concrete sides has been very low and animals have been entering it to drink. The Jackals wait for a springbok and move in to seal the entrance as a pack. The trapped creature doesn’t stand a chance.

    Not sure if there’s any animal magnetism there – I reckon it’s plain old cunning earning a meal.

  30. Pamela Hawkins December 17, 2013 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Absolutely amazing video…thanks for sharing.

  31. Wren Rose December 18, 2013 at 5:57 am - Reply

    Thanks for including a link to the full study. Very intereresting article and comments to consider too, thanks everyone! Nice to have so many additional variables to ponder as well as learning about a potential new driver of this behaviour.

  32. Miriam Papangelopoulo December 18, 2013 at 7:51 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this amazing video.

  33. Marshal Moser December 20, 2013 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Looks like quite an opportunity for more research. What an amazing universe we live in! l This may be old news but I have an old observation that would be a great PhD project for someone on which to do some critical research, if not already covered: “Infra-red sensing in canines, mostly via their “cold sink” noses.” If anyone wants a casual description of the observation, let me know. Best, Marshal

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