Everyone loves Fantastic Mr Fox – but are foxes as clever as books tell us?

Many of us will know the story of Fantastic Mr Fox.

Forced to use his cunning and intelligence to outsmart a trio of farmers known as Boggis, Bunce and Bean, Roald Dahl’s Mr Fox is one of literature’s most loved and admired furry characters.

Books, film and TV can have a huge impact on our perceptions of animals. Thanks to the work of wily Mr Fox, the species is now widely recognised as being clever, crafty and adaptable.

But how true is that? Are foxes and other popular British wild animals as intelligent as we think?

As environmental changes and the impact of people continue to pose new threats and dangers to wildlife, are foxes clever enough to react to these challenges?

That is what Dr Blake Morton, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Hull, is trying to find out.

Dr Morton’s research has seen him study the behaviour and psychology of animals, to see whether fiction stacks up against fact.

“It is all about a species’ brain size. Smarter species are typically more adaptive, and innovation is one important way for animals to survive.

“From our existing research, we would expect foxes to be more intelligent than other British carnivores like the badger, for example. Foxes have a relatively larger brain size than badgers.

“However, from our research in America with animals like raccoons and opossums, we are finding wild animals with big brains still do not always act in a clever way. For example, similar to people, sometimes smart animals are simply not willing or interested in using their brains to solve problems.

“We have done tests on both of those species, and although raccoons are the larger brained animal of the two, they did not always respond to challenges in a predictable manner. This tells us that ‘smarter’ is not always necessarily better for all situations.”

In a previous research study in the USA, Dr Morton tested raccoons and opossums with a series of problem-solving tasks.

The animals had to solve a number of challenges – described by Dr Morton as an “animal IQ test” - to access a tasty treat as a reward.

Dr Morton is now planning similar tests and exercises on foxes and badgers in the UK, in a new study called the British Carnivore Project.

Very few studies have previously been done on the intelligence of British carnivores, but foxes are known to have larger brains than badgers.

If the findings of Dr Morton’s studies in America are replicated in the UK, he expects foxes to be the better problem-solvers of the two.

The findings will further our understanding of whether animals such as foxes are clever enough to adapt to environmental change – something which could ultimately determine their future survival.

“Carnivores are a major source of biodiversity on the planet, but have not really been studied in this way before, particularly in the wild,” Dr Morton said.

“We would like to discover what factors allow them to adapt to climate and environmental change, particularly changes humans are causing. This is currently something we do not have a clear answer to.

“We know humans are different to other animals. But how are we different? The best way to find out is to compare ourselves – and our ability to solve problems and challenges – to other citizens of the planet.”

In literature, Fantastic Mr Fox outsmarted his human foes.

The story goes that Boggis, Bunce and Bean sat waiting at the entrance to Mr Fox’s underground home for the sly animal to emerge, while Mr Fox himself had dug a tunnel network to access food and supplies.

In fact, Mr Fox even received help from his trusted friend, Badger, as the duo teamed up to adapt to the threat before them.

Dr Morton’s research hopes to explore whether there is truth behind the popular tale, and whether foxes and badgers have the intelligence to withstand environmental and habitat change.

Find out more about research in the Department of Psychology and Social Work at the University of Hull.

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