Study finds urban foxes might be bolder - but they are not 'outfoxing' their rural cousins

Foxes are well known for thriving in the UK's cities - but scientists say this doesn't give them a propensity for problem-solving

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Urban foxes may be bolder than their country cousins but city life has not made them cleverer - nor more likely to break into a closed rubbish bin.

A team from the University of Hull spent two years studying wild foxes in 104 locations across England and Scotland, by leaving them puzzles to do for food rewards. But while researchers discovered urban foxes were more prepared to physically touch the unfamiliar puzzles - they had no more inclination that rural foxes to try and get inside.

“For years, researchers have claimed that urbanisation is making wildlife bolder and smarter due to the challenges they face from ‘life in the city’," psychologist and animal behaviourist Blake Morton, who led the research, told PA. “In our study, we tested this hypothesis in wild red foxes by giving them unfamiliar puzzle feeders to see how they would react."

The foxes could gain access to the food using their natural behaviours, like biting, pulling, or lifting materials with their paws or mouth.

A fox trots past Number 10 Downing Street in Central London (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)A fox trots past Number 10 Downing Street in Central London (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
A fox trots past Number 10 Downing Street in Central London (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The study, published in Animal Behaviour on Tuesday (8 August), found that foxes from 96 locations acknowledged the puzzles, but only foxes from 31 places were willing to touch them, while foxes from just 12 locations gained actually access to the food.

“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," Dr Morton said. However, foxes from all parts of England and Scotland were happy to eat free food left unattended without a puzzle to solve.

“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," he added.

Dr Morton said this could challenge the long-standing notion that urban foxes were "notorious scavengers" of other human-made food containers, like 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."

While his team was continuing to research what other factors might be leading some foxes to break into places like closed rubbish bins, he said overall the results did suggest that when human food sources were easily accessible - like when they had no lids or physical barriers - foxes may be more likely to give them a go - leading to possible conflict with people.

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

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.