New research suggest red foxes are two species

Dr Carl Soulsbury, from the School of Life Sciences, was part of a team whose research sheds new light on the origin of red foxes.

Red foxes are the most widely distributed living land carnivore, being found across the northern hemisphere and with an introduced range including Australia. They show extreme ecological flexibility in where they live, ranging from the centres of urban areas through to deserts.

Historically, red foxes were split into two separate species, the Eurasian red fox Vulpes vulpes and the North American red fox Vulpes fulva. North American red foxes look superficially similar to Eurasian red foxes, but differ morphologically including being smaller.

However, based on morphological characters these species were later merged into one. Now a large global multi-institution study led by the University of California and including Dr Soulsbury from the University of Lincoln have sampled and carried out DNA analysis on red foxes collected from all parts of the world.

The results, published in the journal Molecular Ecology show that red foxes first evolved in the Middle East. It also showed that North American foxes diverged from Eurasian red foxes relatively quickly afterwards – approximately 400,000 years ago – and have been largely isolated from each other throughout the subsequent ice age cycles. This new work suggests that the original split of red foxes into two species is correct, and the North American red foxes should be designated as Vulpes fulva.

Statham, M. J., Murdoch, J., Janecka, J., Aubry, K. B., Edwards, C. J., Soulsbury, C. D., Sacks, B. N. (2014). Range‐wide multilocus phylogeography of the red fox reveals ancient continental divergence, minimal genomic exchange and distinct demographic histories. Molecular Ecology, 23(19), 4813-4830.