Urban foxes ‘bolder but not cleverer’ than rural cousins

Experts studied wild foxes in 104 locations across Scotland and England by leaving them tasks to do for rewards.

Urban foxes may be bolder than their country cousins but city life has not made them cleverer, according to researchers who set puzzles for dozens of the animals.

A team from the University of Hull spent two years studying wild foxes in 104 locations in England and Scotland by leaving them tasks to do for rewards.

Psychologist and animal behaviourist Blake Morton, who led the research, said they found that urban foxes were more prepared to physically touch the puzzles but they did not show any greater inclination than the rural dwellers to try to get inside.

Dr Morton said: “For years, researchers have claimed that urbanisation is making wildlife bolder and smarter due to the challenges they face from ‘life in the city’.

“In our study, we tested this hypothesis in wild red foxes by giving them unfamiliar puzzle feeders to see how they would react.

“We found that urban foxes were more likely to behave bolder than rural populations in terms of their willingness to physically touch the puzzles, but they were not more motivated to try to gain access to the rewards inside.”

The foxes had to use simple behaviours to gain access to the food, including biting, pulling, or lifting materials with their paws and mouth.

The study, published in Animal Behaviour, found that foxes from 96 locations acknowledged the puzzles, but foxes from only 31 locations touched them and foxes from just 12 locations gained access to the food.

Dr Morton said: “Although we found a tendency for London foxes to behave bolder and exploit the puzzles, many other foxes in our study were too shy or unmotivated to exploit them despite having access for up to two weeks.

“When we left food on the ground without any puzzle, all foxes – regardless of location – willingly ate the free food.”

He said: “Collectively, this suggests that, when human food sources are easily accessible, such as no lids or physical barriers, foxes may be more likely to exploit such opportunities, leading to possible conflict with people.

“As global urbanisation continues, it is important that people understand how to avoid conflict with urban wildlife.

“Indeed, foxes are a beloved and ecologically important part of many urban green spaces, and so future management needs to balance both positive and negative human-wildlife interactions within cities.”

The fox study, which included academics from the Universities of Lincoln and Glasgow, and Atlanta Zoo, is part of the British Carnivore Project – a nationwide research programme established in 2021 by Dr Morton for the purpose of understanding the impact of climate change and urbanisation on the behaviour and cognition of wild carnivores.

Dr Morton said his research aims to understand how behavioural and psychological adaptability in animals affects public attitudes towards species in an ever-changing world.

He said: “Our findings are interesting because urbanisation is the fastest form of landscape transformation on the planet, and so urban foxes are likely exposed to many unfamiliar situations.

“Foxes are renowned for thriving in cities, and our study suggests that bolder behaviour may help urban foxes adapt to such settings. However, just because a fox lives in a city doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll engage in problem-solving.

“This latter finding challenges the long-standing belief that urban foxes are notorious scavengers of other human-made food containers, such as litter and the contents of outdoor bins.

“Undeniably, litter and outdoor bins can provide at least some urban foxes the opportunity for an easy meal but, for many other foxes, our study shows that their behaviour is much more nuanced; other factors besides bolder behaviour may lead some foxes to exploit such resources, which my team is currently investigating.”

STV News is now on WhatsApp

Get all the latest news from around the country

Follow STV News
Follow STV News on WhatsApp

Scan the QR code on your mobile device for all the latest news from around the country

WhatsApp channel QR Code