How Foxes Might Use Earth's Magnetic Field to Hunt Prey

Even a blanket of snow can't keep a small rodent safe from a hungry fox.

Foxes are very skilled hunters.
Foxes are very skilled hunters. / John Conrad/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

When red foxes are hunting small prey, they use a tactic that biologists call “mousing”: A fox will stalk its quarry until it’s at a certain distance, leap high into the air, and come down on the animal from above.

A land animal using an aerial attack is pretty cool, but what’s really impressive is that it works even in winter, when there’s snow on the ground and prey is hiding underneath it. A fox will stalk, jump, dive headfirst into a foot or two of snow, and still nab a meal that was invisible to it.

How do foxes hunt?

According to zoologist Jaroslav Červený, when they’re hunting like this, foxes seem to rely heavily on auditory cues. They move slowly and deliberately with their ears erect, cocking their heads from side to side and paying close attention to the slightest sounds of their invisible prey. After more than two years in the field watching foxes hunt, though, Červený has suggested there’s more to mousing in the snow than a discerning ear, and that foxes may have a secret sense that helps them target what they cannot see. 

Červený and his team enlisted 23 wildlife biologists and hunters to help them document fox hunting behavior. Between them, they recorded 84 foxes performing almost 600 mousing jumps in various parts of the Czech Republic over two years. When the researchers compared everyone’s notes, they found a pattern. When prey was out in the open or in low cover and easily seen, the foxes approached and leapt at it from all different directions. When prey was deep in some vegetation or hiding underneath snow, though, the foxes tended to jump toward the northeast to pounce on it. The majority of the successful attacks on hidden prey that were recorded were “confined to a cluster centered about 20 degrees clockwise of magnetic north,” the researchers reported in a 2011 paper. When the foxes made those northeast-pointing attacks, they had a 75 percent success rate; attempts in almost any other direction, though, ended in a kill less than 20 percent of the time.

The foxes’ preference for northeast leaps, and the advantage they brought, held up across different locations, seasons, times of day and weather conditions, and the researchers couldn’t find any environmental cues that might have influenced it. The only explanation left, they thought, was that the foxes could sense the Earth’s magnetic field and were lining their attacks up with it. 

Can animals sense Earth’s magnetic field?

It’s not unheard-of for animals to have a magnetic sense. Birds, sharks, lobsters and a handful of other species have all been shown to perceive the planet’s magnetic field. Červený and some of the other scientists working on the fox study, in fact, had previously demonstrated that cows and deer tend to align themselves with magnetic north while grazing, suggesting that they also have some sense of “magnetoreception.” In most of these cases, though, animals use the magnetic field to aid navigation. Foxes, if they can detect it, would be the first animal scientists know of that use it to hunt

So how does the magnetic field help a fox find a mouse? The researchers think that field acts like a rangefinder for the foxes, telling them how far away prey is when they can’t see it and making their blind jumps more accurate. At a certain point during the hunt, noise coming from the prey overlaps with the slope of magnetic field, as the fox senses it. When this happens, the fox is a fixed distance away from the prey and as it keeps hunting and pouncing, it’ll eventually learn to perfect its jump to cover that distance so it lands right on the prey. 

The fox’s sense of the magnetic field, the researchers speculate, could be as obvious as a sort of “heads-up display” in which they literally see the field as a pattern of light or color superimposed on their surroundings. All the fox would need to do to find the sweet spot and fix the distance of its prey is creep up until the location of the prey’s sounds lines up with part of the pattern (given the fox's strong preference for north-east jumps, the part of the pattern/field it uses to target is probably in that direction and the most visually obvious).

What do foxes eat?

Foxes are omnivores, meaning they’ll feast on a whole variety of food. Red foxes hunt rodents like mice and squirrels, and will also eat rabbits, birds, insects, and reptiles. They’ll help themselves to fruits, veggies, and nuts too. Red foxes, particularly those who live in urban areas, have also been known to dig through people’s trash in search of their next meal. And despite the common misconception, they won’t usually go after someone’s pet cat.

Gray foxes, like red foxes, also eat a mix of meat and plant-based items. They’ll hunt smaller animals like mice and rabbits, and will also scavenge for fruit, nuts, and vegetables. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission [PDF], they’ll eat “a significant amount of wild fruit and agricultural crops such as corn and peanuts.”

Arctic foxes, which, as their name suggests, inhabit arctic areas, eat nesting seabirds and their eggs, rodents, berries, and other small mammals. They rely heavily on lemmings and voles in the summer. Years with plentiful lemmings and voles often boost arctic fox numbers, while a year of scarcity will cause a population decline. Given the harsh climates they live in, these foxes sometimes have to go to great lengths to find their next meal. They’ve even been known to travel over sea ice to scavenge the remains of seals polar bears have killed.

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A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.