Can foxes climb trees?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • The gray fox is surprisingly adept at climbing trees and is sometimes known as the tree fox
  • Gray foxes have flexible wrists, cat-like paws and long curved claws suitable for climbing
  • They climb trees to rest, forage for food and escape predators; they can even jump between branches
  • Gray foxes are also unique in that they’re known to drag skeletons — even those as large as fawns — into trees, possibly for resting spots and to mark their territory

Foxes are part of the Canidae family, which also includes coyotes, jackals, wolves and dogs. Most of these animals are the type that keep their paws planted firmly on the ground, but one — the gray fox — is surprisingly adept at climbing trees. As such, the gray fox is sometimes known as the cat fox or the tree fox,1 and in the video above you can see one quickly scurrying up a tree.

Speaking to The Charlotte Observer, Stephanie Schuttler, Ph.D., a research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said, "Yes, I think people would be surprised to know that. Although some dog species can jump into trees on low branches, they can't climb up a straight trunk like the gray fox can. I believe the raccoon dog is the only other canid that can climb trees."2

The footage was captured by North Carolina's Candid Critters, a program that encourages citizen scientists to put motion-sensitive cameras on their property in order to capture footage of animals to map trends in animal populations across the state.3

Gray foxes — The tree-loving canines

Gray foxes are small animals that look similar to red foxes, as they have a mix of both red and gray fur, but they have shorter legs and a black-tipped tail (instead of a white-tipped one seen in red foxes). The oldest canid species, it's believed that gray foxes originated at least 3.6 million years ago,4 and now live in a broad area from Canada to South America, preferring forested areas, brushy woodlands and even farmlands nearby.5

Gray foxes have a varied diet, including rodents, rabbits and other small mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and fruit. They're known to be opportunistic foragers who will use the "mouse pounce" hunting technique, in which they jump into the air and pounce on prey to stun them, making catching them easier.6

What makes gray foxes particularly fascinating, however, is their tree-climbing ability, courtesy of flexible wrists, cat-like paws and long curved claws.7 They climb trees to rest, forage for food and escape predators; they can even jump between branches. The Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust explains:8

"To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs. Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch.

Coming down is a bit trickier than going up … it's either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run. A low center of gravity and four well-clawed feet make the latter option less scary than it sounds."

Gray foxes create 'skeleton trees'

These primarily nocturnal creatures are also unique in that they're known to drag skeletons — even those as large as fawns — into trees. Photographer and professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, Alex Badyaev, Ph.D., has taken rare photos of the animals perched in the treetops alongside their prize skeletons, which are often dragged into treetops by mating pairs (gray fox choose mates for life).

"We don't know why breeding pairs of foxes drag bones high up to the canopy," Badyaev wrote for the National Wildlife Federation, "but a typical territory of a breeding pair has two or three such skeleton trees. These dried-out bones seem to be used mostly for resting and for marking territory."9

The raccoon dog is the only other climbing canine

As far as tree-climbing abilities go, gray foxes are joined by the raccoon dog of East Asia, the only other member of the Canidae family that's arboreal. Raccoon dogs gained some level of Internet notoriety after appearing in videos as pets. These wild animals, however, shouldn't be confused with their domesticated dog counterparts and do not make good house pets.

Raccoon dogs resemble the raccoons that they're named for, though they have no relation. Native to East Asia, raccoon dogs were released in the Soviet Union eight decades ago to be hunted for fur. They've since spread into Europe and have been kept as pets, but as owners realize they're too hard to keep, they've been released, and now pose a threat to local wildlife, including amphibians and ground-nesting birds.10

Getting back to gray foxes, they have several predators, including coyotes, bobcats, horned owls, golden eagles and cougars. The species is not threatened, although their habitats are decreasing as forested areas get cleared for development, causing them to live in closer proximity to humans. As such, they're also at risk from automobile collisions, trapping and hunting practices.11

If you're fortunate enough to capture a sighting of a gray fox in your neighborhood, consider yourself lucky. These arboreal critters are both fast-moving and secretive, which can make sightings a relative rarity.

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