A Tale of Two Reds: Old-world versus New-world Red Fox

Growing up around furbearers, I made the physical distinction early on between our two New England resident fox populations - the often meek Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) and the slightly larger Red Fox (vulpes vulpes). As I became more enthralled with the biological characteristics of wildlife species as a young adult, it was also well established amongst wildlife professionals and fur trappers alike that only one of these two fox species were native to North America.

By the 1700s, early English settlers were prompted to import Red Foxes (vulpes vulpes) from their native homelands of Europe for sport hunting with hounds. Rumor has it, the smaller Gray Fox, with the natural adaptation to scale and climb trees, became less engaging for fox-hunting settlers, as their fox hounds would lose scent once the indigenous canines were driven to the treetops. The result - the introduction of the larger Red Fox finding a new home in the New World of a colonizing New England, and becoming just another non-native wild species imported during the boon of said colonization.

But is it as simple as gray foxes are native and red foxes are not?

Not quite.

The concepts of “old-world” and “new-world” red foxes were brought to my attention via casual discussion with a local biologist and, well, being one who just can’t leave well enough alone, I wanted to get more clarity on the topic. So I decided to dig deeper into the history and taxonomy of North America’s Red Foxes. As it turns out, an original or “native” red fox subspecies did inhabit montane and glacial areas of North America prior to European settlement; it just wasn’t indigenous to where early settlers were colonizing in the eastern United States.

whats in a name?

According to experts, the red fox has the largest natural distribution of any wild canid.

The title “fox” in a broad sense refers to 10 or so species of Canidae relegated to the genus Vulpes. The red, or most common fox (Vulpes vulpes) lives in both the Old World (Europe) and the New World (North America). To make things more confusing, I was shocked to discover over 45 subspecies of the red fox (vulpes vulpes) exist - according to online databases. Several of whom are (or once were) native to the United States and Canada long before English colonization and the introduction of European (Old World) red foxes.

There’s also several other foxes around the world which belong to fox genera other than Vulpes - including North America’s gray fox, several species of South American fox, the charismatic Arctic fox (which includes the blue fox), the bat-eared fox, and a critter I was completely unaware of prior to researching this topic, known as the crab-eating fox.

As for the red fox in what would be considered “the Old World”, the Vulpes ranges over pretty much all of Europe, temperate Asia, and northern ranges of Africa. In what we consider “the New World” of North America, the red fox subspecies are (or were) found across most of the continent’s mountainous terrain.

These native red fox species were believed to be well adapted to colder, mountainous climates. In fact, as many as seven different subspecies of indigenous red fox inhabited North America from the provinces of Canada all the way down through the mountain ranges to Colorado and New Mexico; according to historic scientific journal reports. During the Lewis and Clark expeditions of 1803 through 1806, red foxes were reported as far north as the northern plains of central North Dakota in the United States.

Research asserts that native red foxes were hypersensitive to human development - with most indigenous fox populations disappearing from south-central Canada down to Nebraska by the late 1800s as these areas became settled by man.

Nonnative red foxes of European origin were introduced throughout the eastern and lowland Pacific areas of the United States during this colonization period, and it is believed this nonnative “source population” from the eastern United States then expanded westward throughout the central United States and Canada during the 20th century.

This “old-world strain” of red fox has proven to thrive in human-altered habitats such as agricultural farmland and heavily urbanized areas. Since their introduction, old-world red foxes have successfully dominated an array of climatically differing terrain, ranging from dry desert to arctic tundra. As with many non-native introduced species, old-world foxes have impacted these ecosystems and native species - in many cases negatively, such as the case with endangered species of birds and other populations of native fox themselves. Old-world reds are regarded as an incredibly adaptable generalist predator, capable of maintaining relatively high population densities throughout their current North American range.

The American Red Fox of Today

Today, it is believed old-world “nonnative” red foxes have likely replaced the native “new-world” subspecies throughout most northern boreal regions; and may actually threaten whatever populations of “native reds” exist at higher elevations in the western United States.

The British Columbia red fox - Vulpes fulva abietorum (Photo | Alan D. Wilson)

There seems to be great confusion amongst researchers and scientists as to which strain of red fox dominates the North American landscape today. Based on several studies, it would appear the generalized “red fox” namesake is broadly regarded either as an exotic species introduced by European settlers, or as a hybrid between Eurasian and native red foxes - depending on which researcher you talk to.

In other words, we may want to re-title this article as “the tale of ten reds” instead.

Splitting the proverbial fox hair even more, a generalized subspecies known commonly as the American red fox or eastern American red fox (vulpes vulpes fulvus), seems to be a title cast upon what has become known as today’s dominating North American red fox.

Vulpes vulpes fulvus is widely believed to be descended from red foxes imported from Europe to the American colonies, and as such, considered an exotic invasive organism occupying most of the contiguous United States (with exception of the western mountains and Sacramento Valley where true native species still exist). However, some researchers do contend that accumulation of old accounts of native foxes, along with the assistance of morphological and genetic studies, seems to suggest Vulpes vulpes fulvus should be, in fact, deemed a native species.

Vulpes vulpes fulvus has become regarded in the scientific community as just one of nine subspecies of red fox thought to still be recognized as North American subspecies of Vulpes vulpes today.

While both “old world” and “new world” red foxes are subspecies of the same general fox species (Vulpes vulpes), differences between these subs are apparent; including variances in coat coloration, morphology, behavior, size, hunting habits, and habitat requirements.

In the case of Vulpes vulpes fulvus, the subspecies is said to differ from its European counterparts by a noticeably shorter nose and wider feet, as well as variances in ears and longer fur.

Notable subspecies of red fox found scientifically recognized in North America include the British Columbian fox (Vulpes fulva abietorum), the Northern Alaskan fox (Vulpes fulva alascensis), the Cascade Mountains red fox (vulpes fulva cascadensis), the American red fox (Vulpes fulva fulvus), the Wasatch Mountains fox (Vulpes fulva macroura), the Sierra Nevada red fox aka High Sierra fox (Vulpes fulva necator), the Sacramento Valley red fox (Vulpes fulva patwin), the Northern plains fox (Vulpes fulva regalis), and the Nova Scotia fox (Vulpes fulva rubricosa).

And we all thought coyote taxonomy and lineage was confusing!

Interested in sharing your insight into the crazy world of North America’s red fox lineage? Continue the discussion in the comment section below!

Check out our other posts on Red Fox: