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

A red fox on a green lawn.

A red fox on a green lawn. / James Warwick/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Foxes are members of the Canidae family, which means they’re related to wolves, jackals, and dogs. They’re medium-sized, weighing anywhere between two and 24 pounds, with pointy faces, lithe frames, and bushy tails.

A solitary fox in a snowy landscape

A solitary fox. / Iza Łysoń/500px Prime/Getty Images

Unlike their canid 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.

A red fox stalking a magpie.

A red fox stalking a magpie. / sandra standbridge/Moment/Getty Images

Like a cat, the fox is most active after the sun goes down. It has vertically oriented pupils so it can see in dim light, and it hunts by stalking and pouncing on its prey. The fox also has sensitive cat-like whiskers and spines on its tongue. It walks on its toes, which accounts for its elegant, feline-like tread. The gray fox even has semi-retractable claws, making it the only member of the dog family that can climb trees. It has been known to sleep in the branches—just like a cat.

A kit fox on grasslands in Colorado.

A kit fox in Colorado. / Pat Gaines/Moment/Getty Images

Although there are 37 animals called foxes, only 12 are considered “true foxes,” meaning they’re calssified in the genus Vulpes. Some of these include the red, Arctic, fennec, and kit foxes. True foxes have flattened skulls, triangular snouts, and fluffy tails, but it’s common to be confused when seeing one in real life. Research found that while nature lovers can identify most North American mammals, they frequently mix foxes up with other canids, like coyotes.

A red fox in Alqonquin Provincial Park peeping from behind a tree

A red fox in Alqonquin Provincial Park. / Jim Cumming/Moment/Getty Images

Geographically, the red fox has the widest range of any of the 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 even in Australia, where it’s considered an invasive species.

Like a guided missile, the fox harnesses Earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Other animals, like birds, sharks, and turtles, have this “magnetic sense,” but the fox is the first one known to use it to catch prey.

According to New Scientist, the fox can see the planet’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” on its eyes that darkens as it moves toward magnetic north. When the shadow and the sound of prey lines up, it’s time to pounce.

An Arctic fox with her kit on green grass.

An Arctic fox with her kit in summertime. / Giedrius Stakauskas/EyeEm/Getty Images

Fox pups 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 sometimes 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.

Fox kits love to roughhouse.

Fox kits love to roughhouse. / Carlos Carreno/Moment/Getty Images

Foxes are known to play among themselves, as well as with other animals. But play also establishes social hierarchy, and it starts very young. Animal behaviorist Sandra Alvarez-Betancourt studied thousands of hours of footage taken with an infrared camera of pup activity in the den. She discovered that the struggle for dominance starts as soon as the pups can walk. The play can be brutal—and even fatal. One in five pups never make it out of the den.

A fennec fox and its magnificent ears.

A fennec fox and its magnificent ears. / Mark Newman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The cream-colored fennec fox is roughly the size of a kitten and lives in North African deserts, where it sleeps during the day to avoid the searing heat. The fox has a few adaptations that allow it to survive: Its elongated ears radiate body heat to keep the fox cool (and allow it to hear prey) and its paws are covered with fur so that the fox can walk on hot sand, like it’s wearing snowshoes.

A fox strolls down a street in England.

A fox strolls down a street in England. / Ian Wade Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Although foxes are wild, their relationship with people goes way back. In 2011, researchers opened a grave in a 16,500-year-old Jordan cemetery 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.

Two island foxes in California's Channel Islands.

Two island foxes in California’s Channel Islands. / mlharing/E+/Getty Images

This small fox lives on the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. It’s thought to be a descendant of gray foxes brought over by the people who settled the islands 13,000 years ago. Recent studies show that island foxes are genetically identical to each other. One group “set a record for the least genetic variation in a sexually reproducing species,” according to The New York Times. Normally that’s bad news, since lack of genetic diversity leads to disease and deformity, but the island fox has proven resilient. While at one point they were critically endangered, they’ve responded to conservation efforts and have been upgraded in status to near threatened.

An Arctic fox in summer.

An Arctic fox in summer. / Marcin Dobas/500px Prime/Getty Images

For instance, the Arctic fox’s fur changes color according to the seasons, varying from a blue morph or a white morph. The white morph is brown or gray in summer and turns white when there’s snow on the ground. The blue morph is dark gray or brown all year long.

The red fox also comes in many colors, including silver, black, orange, or a mix of all three. While color variations happen naturally, people have bred foxes for their fur, leading to different patterns. These include the marble fox, which is white with gray or black streaks; the cross fox, which is red with back patches; and the pink champagne fox, which has peachy-white fur and a pink nose.

A silver fox, a domesticated version of the red fox.

In 1959, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev conducted an experiment in domestication. He selectively bred silver foxes, picking only the ones that showed the least aggression toward humans. Within 10 generations, the foxes started seeking people out, licking hands, barking, and wagging their tails. White spots appeared on their coats and they developed floppy ears. It suggested genetic links between how domesticated animals look and act. While the experiment’s methodology has been challenged, the study gave insight into how selective breeding affects domestication.

Fox about to bite an ice cream cone from a person's hand

You shouldn’t keep foxes as pets (or feed them ice cream cones). / Jason Gines/EyeEm/Getty Images

Although wild animals should never be pets, thanks to Belyaev’s experiment, domesticated foxes do exist. Unlike a tame fox, which has learned to tolerate humans, a domesticated fox is bred to be docile from birth. Laws for and access to pet foxes vary by location. They’re reportedly curious and sweet-tempered, but also high-energy and tend to get into everything. Some liken it to living with a 2-year-old. (Note that unlike the foxes from the Siberian facility, foxes bred within the U.S. are not actually domesticated or tame.)

A gray fox dines on a chicken leg.

A gray fox dines on a chicken leg. / Picture by Tambako the Jaguar/Moment/Getty Images

In the 1960s, there was a rabies epidemic among foxes in Switzerland. Since rabies can be transferred to humans through an animal bite, and can be fatal, it was a public health crisis. The government wanted to vaccinate foxes against rabies, but administering the doses by hand proved difficult and expensive. Instead, they started dropping vaccinated chicken heads on the countryside for the foxes to eat—52,000 in all. “From 1979 to 1984, chicken heads would rain down on the countryside,” according to The Atlantic. It worked. Rabies disappeared, a testimony to the effectiveness of vaccines, and to the foxes’ love of chicken.

An Arctic fox curled up in the snow

Arctic foxes are adapted to the cold. / Oksana Stasenko/EyeEm/Getty Images

The Arctic fox, which lives in the northernmost parts of the hemisphere, can handle cold better than most animals on Earth. It doesn’t shiver until temps reach -94° F (-70° C). Not only does the fox’s thick fur hold in heat, the fox wraps its tail around its body like a blanket to keep warm. In autumn, they build up fat, sometimes increasing their body weight by half. This adds insulation and helps the fox survive the coldest days of winter, when food is scarce.

Young Arctic foxes on a warming landscape.

Young Arctic foxes on a warming landscape. / Cecilia Tomasulo/EyeEm/Getty Images

The number of Arctic foxes is declining, and the reason may be the red fox. As temperatures increase, the red fox is moving into the Arctic tundra and competing for prey. Red foxes are superior hunters and, to make matters worse, they also eat Arctic foxes. None of this bodes well for the Arctic fox’s future.

A painting of a fox hunt.

A painting of a fox hunt. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Since the 16th century, fox hunting has been 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’s killed. Today, potential bans on fox hunting continue to be a controversial subject in the UK, where many people see foxes as pests. Currently, fox hunting is allowed with two dogs if the fox is damaging your property.

Some foxes can run up to 42 mph, giving new meaning to the phrase quick like a fox. They’re agile—able to jump three feet in the air and climb fences and over roofs—and have impressive endurance: One Arctic fox walked 2700 miles, from Norway to Canada, in three months. That’s over 30 miles a day.

Reynard the fox.

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.” Finnish lore says 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).

In Western culture, foxes have long been called wily, clever, and cunning. It’s not a compliment: These foxes were portrayed as deceptive tricksters only out for themselves. This attitude may reflect the fox’s adaptability, nocturnal habits, and tenacious ability to get into a hen house or evade hunting dogs. Certainly foxes still outwit humans on a regular basis. In one video, an Arctic fox appears to play dead to escape Siberian fur trappers—proving itself to be one sly fox.

A study looking at urban foxes in London revealed something surprising: They’re starting to look more like domesticated dogs. Compared to their rural relatives, London foxes have shorter snouts and smaller brains. While it’s unclear why this is, the strange part is that the foxes are doing this to themselves. As evolutionary biologist Kevin Parsons explained to the BBC, “This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals.”

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 bats, it listens for insects. On a typical night, it walks along the African savannah, listening for prey digging underground. Although the 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.

Darwin's fox is found only in Chile.

Darwin’s fox is found only in Chile. / Kevin Schafer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

During his voyage on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin discovered a small fox on Chiloé Island off the coast of Chile. The fox was sitting on a rocky cliff gazing curiously at the ship anchored offshore. Darwin wrote, “He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer.”

Today, this small gray fox is critically endangered and lives in two spots in the world: On the Island of Chiloé and the mainland of Chile near a national park. The fox’s greatest threats are habitat loss and rabid dogs.

Foxes make 40 different sounds. The most startling, though, might be its scream, often heard in the middle of the night during the animals’ mating season.

A version of this article was originally published in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.

Joy Lanzendorfer

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