14 Fascinating Facts About Foxes

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Foxes live on every continent except Antarctica and thrive in cities, towns, and rural settings. But despite being all around us, they're a bit of a mystery. Here's more about this elusive animal.

1. FOXES ARE SOLITARY.

A fox standing in a field.
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Foxes are part of the Canidae family, which means they're related to wolves, jackals, and dogs. They're medium-sized, between 7 and 15 pounds, with pointy faces, lithe frames, and bushy tails. But unlike their relatives, foxes are not pack animals. When raising their young, they live in small families—called a "leash of foxes" or a "skulk of foxes"—in underground burrows. Otherwise, they hunt and sleep alone.

2. THEY HAVE A LOT IN COMMON WITH CATS.

A fox perched on a long branch.
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Like the cat, the fox is most active after the sun goes down. In fact, it has vertically oriented pupils that allow it to see in dim light. It even hunts in a similar manner to a cat, by stalking and pouncing on its prey.

And that's just the beginning of the similarities. Like the cat, the fox has sensitive whiskers and spines on its tongue. It walks on its toes, which accounts for its elegant, cat-like tread. And foxes are the only member of the dog family that can climb trees—gray foxes have claws that allow them to climb and descend vertical trees quickly. Some foxes even sleep in trees—just like cats.

3. THE RED FOX IS THE MOST COMMON FOX.

Two fox kits on a rock.
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Geographically, the red fox has the widest range of the more than 280 animals in the order Carnivora. While its natural habitat is a mixed landscape of scrub and woodland, its flexible diet allows it to adapt to many environments. As a result, its range is the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa to Central America to the Asiatic steppes. It's also in Australia, where it's considered an invasive species.

4. FOXES USE THE EARTH'S MAGNETIC FIELD.

A fox pouncing on prey in the snow.
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Like a guided missile, the fox harnesses the earth's magnetic field to hunt. Other animals, like birds, sharks, and turtles, have this "magnetic sense," but the fox is the first one we've discovered that uses it to catch prey.

According to New Scientist, the fox can see the earth's magnetic field as a "ring of shadow" on its eyes that darkens as it heads towards magnetic north. When the shadow and the sound the prey is making line up, it's time to pounce. Check out this video of a fox in action.

5. THEY ARE GOOD PARENTS.

Fox parent with a couple of kits.
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Foxes reproduce once a year. Litters range from one to 11 pups (the average is six), which are born blind and don't open their eyes until nine days after birth. During that time, they stay with the vixen (female) in the den while the dog (male) brings them food. They live with their parents until they're seven months old. Vixens have been known to go to great lengths to protect their pups—once, in England, a fox pup was caught in a wire trap for two weeks but survived because its mother brought it food every day.

6. THE SMALLEST FOX WEIGHS UNDER 3 POUNDS.

A fennec fox walking into the wind in the desert.
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Roughly the size of a kitten, the fennec fox has elongated ears and a creamy coat. It lives in the Sahara Desert, where it sleeps during the day to protect it from the searing heat. Its ears not only allow it to hear prey, they also radiate body heat, which keeps the fox cool. Its paws are covered with fur so that the fox can walk on hot sand, like it's wearing snowshoes.

7. FOXES ARE PLAYFUL.

Two fox cubs playing with each other.
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Foxes are known to be friendly and curious. They play among themselves, as well as with other animals, like cats and dogs do. They love balls, which they will steal from backyards and golf courses.

Although foxes are wild animals, their relationship with humans goes way back. In 2011, researchers opened a grave in a 16,500-year-old cemetery in Jordan to find the remains of a man and his pet fox. This was 4000 years before the first-known human and domestic dog were buried together.

8. YOU CAN BUY A PET FOX.

Fox sleeping in a garden.
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In the 1960s, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev bred thousands of foxes before achieving a domesticated fox. Unlike a tame fox, which has learned to tolerate humans, a domesticated fox is docile toward people from birth. Today, you can buy a pet fox for $9000, according to Fast Company. They're reportedly curious and sweet-tempered, though they are inclined to dig in the garden.

9. ARCTIC FOXES DON'T SHIVER UNTIL -70° CELSIUS.

Arctic fox curled in a ball.
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The arctic fox, which lives in the northernmost areas of the hemisphere, can handle cold better than most animals on earth. It doesn't even get cold until –70°C (-94°F). Its white coat also camouflages it against predators. As the seasons change, its coat changes too, turning brown or gray so the fox can blend in with the rocks and dirt of the tundra.

10. FOX HUNTING CONTINUES TO BE CONTROVERSIAL.

Dogs out on a fox hunt.
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Perhaps because of the fox's ability to decimate a chicken coop, in the 16th century, fox hunting became a popular activity in Britain. In the 19th century, the upper classes turned fox hunting into a formalized sport where a pack of hounds and men on horseback chase a fox until it is killed. Today, whether to ban fox hunting continues to be a controversial subject in the UK. Currently, fox hunting with dogs is not allowed.

11. THEY APPEAR THROUGHOUT FOLKLORE.

Entitled 'Reynard In the Pigstye,' circa 1737; a woman and her sow chase out a fox attacking piglets in a sty.
Entitled 'Reynard In the Pigstye,' circa 1737; a woman and her sow chase out a fox attacking piglets in a sty.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Examples include the nine-tail fox from various Asian cultures; the Reynard tales from medieval Europe; the sly trickster fox from Native American lore; and Aesop's "The Fox and the Crow." The Finnish believed a fox made the Northern Lights by running in the snow so that its tail swept sparks into the sky. From this, we get the phrase "fox fires" (though "Firefox," like the Mozilla internet browser, refers to the red panda).

12. BAT-EARED FOXES LISTEN FOR INSECTS.

Two bat-eared foxes in a den.
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The bat-eared fox is aptly named, not just because of its 5-inch ears, but because of what it uses those ears for—like the bat, it listens for insects. On a typical night, it walks along the African savannah, listening until it hears the scuttle of prey. Although the bat-eared fox eats a variety of insects and lizards, most of its diet is made up of termites. In fact, the bat-eared fox often makes its home in termite mounds, which it usually cleans out of inhabitants before moving in.

13. DARWIN DISCOVERED A FOX SPECIES.

A close-up of Darwin's fox.
Fernando Bórquez Bórquez, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

During his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a fox that today is unimaginatively called Darwin's Fox. This small gray fox is critically endangered and lives in just two spots in the world: One population is on Island of Chiloé in Chile, and the second is in a Chilean national park. The fox's greatest threats are unleashed domestic dogs that carry diseases like rabies.

14. WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY? A LOT, ACTUALLY.

Fox howling.
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Foxes make 40 different sounds, some of which you can listen to here. The most startling though might be its scream.

This story was first published in 2017.

How Accurate Are Punxsutawney Phil's Groundhog Day Weather Predictions?

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

On Sunday, February 2, people all across the country will tune in to the biggest spectacle of the season. That’s right—this weekend, Punxsutawney Phil will crawl forth from his tiny tree trunk abode and tell us whether or not to expect six more weeks of winter.

Considering that the legendary groundhog has been predicting the weather since the first Groundhog Day in 1887, it seems safe to assume that he’s gotten pretty good at it by now. The stats, however, indicate that practice doesn’t always make perfect when it comes to mid-sized meteorological rodents. As Live Science reports, the Groundhog Club’s records show that Phil has predicted more winter 103 times, and an early spring just 19. Based on data from the Stormfax Almanac, that means Phil’s accuracy rate is an abysmal 39 percent.

If you only look at weather records dating back to 1969, which are more reliable than earlier accounts, Phil’s job performance review gets even worse: those predictions were correct only 36 percent of the time.

Almost starting to feel sorry for an apparently lousy employee who only has to work for a few minutes each year? According to meteorologist Tim Roche at Weather Underground, Punxsutawney Phil is much more successful when he doesn’t see his shadow.

“Out of the 15 times that he didn’t see his shadow and predicted an early spring, he got it right seven times,” Roche told Live Science. “That’s a 47 percent accuracy rate.”

While Phil is far from infallible, human meteorologists are, too. As National Weather Service meteorologist David Unger told Live Science, “If our forecasts are about 60 percent accurate or higher, then we consider that to be a good estimate.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

15 Facts About the Westminster Dog Show

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

One of America's oldest sporting events is also its most slobbery. This year, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show returns to New York City for the 144th time, promising one preeminent pooch the coveted title of "Best in Show" and a lifetime supply of positive reinforcement. While the show has evolved over its many years, it remains a beguiling spectacle for dog fanatics and casual observers alike. Here are 15 facts to get you competition-ready.

1. The original show was for gun dogs.

Champion Stingray of Derryabah, aka Skipper, a British Lakeland Terrier, wins Best In Show at the 92nd Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Gardens, New York City, February 1968
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Around 1876, a group of sportsmen began to hold regular meet-ups in a Manhattan bar to swap hunting stories. Their trusty canine companions eventually made their way into the conversation, and the idea for a dog club was formed. The group met at a bar in The Westminster Hotel, and aptly named themselves the Westminster Breeding Association (later the Westminster Kennel Club). It was after helping to stage a dog show in Philadelphia that the group decided to hold their own to compare and showboat their pups.

The first show, featuring primarily Setters and Pointers, was an immediate success. A total of 1201 dogs entered the first year, with tens of thousands of spectators by the second day. The first prizes included such items as a "Gold and Silver Mounted Pearl Handled Revolver"—an appropriate reward for an active hunter.

2. The show has seen its share of tragedy.

A photo of J.P. Morgan.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A champion collie belonging to J.P. Morgan, who spent millions on his obsession with dogs and competed in Westminster regularly, drowned itself. Its trainer called the dog's death "a clear case of suicide" in an 1895 New York Times article.

3. You don't have to be young to win.

Vintage Westminster Dog Show photo.
Lady Iddo at the 53th Westminster Dog Show in 1935.
Imagno/Getty Images

In 2009, a 10-year-old Sussex spaniel named Stump (registered name: Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee) broke the record for oldest dog ever to win "Best in Show." He later appeared on the cover of AARP magazine.

4. Nepotism has made its way into the competition.

Westminster Dog Show 2019
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Dog-judging has always been subjective. Judges at the first modern dog show ever, in Newcastle in 1859, were also the owners of the show's two winners. Today, the Westminster Kennel Club website acknowledges that's it's not a precise science. "Each judge, applying their interpretation of the standard, gives their opinion on that day on which dog best represents its breed," it explains.

5. Life has imitated art.

A dog competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Parker Posey, famous for playing a manic, metal-mouthed Weimaraner-owner in the 2000 dog show parody Best in Show, has also spent some time backstage at the Westminster Dog Show. As she told The Wire at the 2014 WKC Dog Show, she met some personalities resembling her own persnickety character while on set: "[Director Christopher Guest] brought over a professional groomer. She came over right before a take and she criticized our dog. She said, 'The coat's all wrong.'"

6. The top dog gets the royal treatment.

The 2019 winner of the Westminster Dog Show.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

The winner of the Westminster Dog Show traditionally eats a celebratory lunch at famed Broadway watering hole Sardi's—breaking New York City's health codes which prevent animals from entering restaurants.

7. It's not all about good looks.

Maximus from the Westminster Dog Show 2019.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The show doesn't only value looks. A two-legged dog named Nellie participated in the first Westminster show ever in 1877, and 1980's "Best in Show" was a true underdog: Cinnar, a Siberian husky missing part of its ear, won with handler Trish Kanzler—one of the few amateurs to ever win the title.

8. The dogs are refined, but their names sometimes aren't.

Westminster Dog Show 2015 photo.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The 2015 WKC Dog Show featured a Pomeranian named Starfire's Spank Me Hard Call Me Crazy, a basset hound named Easthill Broxden Woodland Lettuce Entertain You, and a border terrier named McHill's His Royal Highness Prince Gizmo House of Gremlin.

9. Things have even turned criminal.

A very good boy at a dog show.
MarijaRadovic/iStock via Getty Images

Eight dogs belonging to one prominent New York City dog breeder were poisoned during the 1895 Westminster Dog Show. Despite the story making the front page of The New York Times, no suspect was ever prosecuted for the crime.

10. A bunch of your favorite breeds have never won "best in show."

A chihuahua poking its head out.
Paffy69/iStock via Getty Images

Despite being a favorite among dog-lovers, there has never been a chihuahua, Great Dane, dachshund, or golden retriever crowned "Best in Show." Here's the full list of breeds to never win, as of 2019.

11. Mutts are slowly making their way into the competition.

A dog looking at the camera.
BiancaGrueneberg/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, mutts, a.k.a. "All-Americans," were allowed to participate in Westminster's Agility Championship for the first time since 1884—but they’re still ineligible for "Best in Show."

12. Labs are voted most popular, but not head of the class.

Lacey, a Labrador, runs through a sport course during a press preview for the Westminster Dog Show on February 12, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Despite being the most popular dog in the country, a Labrador retriever has never won "Best in Show." The reason? Experts say their friendly temperament prevents them from desiring the spotlight. Labs can also be disqualified for deviating by half an inch from height standards (between 22.5 and 24.5 inches for males and 21.5 and 23.5 for females)—a regulation that was nearly challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994.

13. Some practices are ancient—and weird.

A dog receiving a prize at a dog show.
Apple Tree House/iStock via Getty Images

While nowadays some breeders cut their dogs' tails for aesthetic reasons, the practice originated with 5th century BCE Greek statesman Alcibiades, who cut the tail of his dog so that the Athenians would have something else to talk about rather than Alcibiades.

14. The dogs have friends (and relatives) in high places.

A photo of a Portuguese water dog.
Ines Arnshoff/iStock via Getty Images

Matisse the Portuguese water dog (officially registered as GCH Claircreek Impression De Matisse) has quite the pedigree. In addition to being the most decorated male show dog in the United States, he is also related to the country's former First Family; his cousin, Sunny, belongs to the Obama family.

15. Naturally, there have been some great underdog stories.

A very tiny dog at the Westminster Dog Show.
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Tickle Em Jock, "Best in Show" winner at the 1911 Westminster Dog Show, was a Scottish terrier and a dark horse to boot. His original owner was a butcher who sold him for 2 pounds (or about $15), which turned out to be the Scottish terrier's lucky break. After a few years with trainer Andrew Albright, Tickle Em Jock was valued at $5000. Once, after winning the title of "best of breed," the scrappy champ bit a judge's wrist.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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