fox on urban roof


Urban foxes: bold, brazen or simply misunderstood?

Urban foxes may be bolder but perhaps not as clever as their urban stereotype suggests, a new University of Hull study finds.

Scientists at the University of Hull studied wild foxes in 104 locations throughout Scotland and England over a period of 2 years.

Dr Blake Morton, University of Hull psychologist and animal behaviourist who led the study, 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.”

In the study, puzzle feeders were given to foxes from 104 locations (one object per location). To access the food, foxes had to use simple behaviours they would naturally use in the real world, such as biting, pulling, or lifting materials with their paws and mouth. Despite foxes from 96 locations acknowledging the puzzles, foxes from only 31 locations touched them while foxes from 12 locations gained access to the food.

The University of Hull’s wildlife-friendly campus is the headquarters for 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, such as foxes and badgers. This most recent study is part of the British Carnivore Project, and is co-authored by Dr Carl Soulsbury (University of Lincoln), Marieke Gartner (Atlanta Zoo), Yacob Haddou (University of Glasgow), and Ellie-Mae Norrie and Kristy Adaway (University of Hull).

Dr Morton 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.

“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.”

Dr Morton 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.”

Formally trained in zoology and psychology, Dr Morton is a university lecturer specialising in animal psychology and wildlife conservation. He publishes in world-leading journals for animal behaviour and cognition, and his work garners major global media attention, including the BBC, The Guardian, TIME, and National Geographic.

Since 2018, he has been studying the behaviour and problem-solving abilities of wild carnivores, particularly in the United Kingdom. The primary goal of his research is to understand what factors drive behavioural and psychological adaptability in animals, and how this impacts public attitudes and behaviour towards species in an ever-changing world.

Read the full study in Animal Behaviour and learn more about The British Carnivore Project.

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