Fantastic Mrs. Fox -- mother knows best for urban fox families

Jul 20, 2011

In urban fox families, mothers determine which cubs get to stay and which must leave while fathers have little say in the matter, new research by biologists at the University of Bristol has found.

In a world of increasing urban sprawl, have successfully established themselves in our very backyard. Surprisingly sociable, these foxes live in defined groups with a dominant male-female pair and a varying number of subordinate adults. In spring each family produces a litter of cubs. Some of these cubs remain in the family group for the rest of their lives while others leave to search for another family to join. Scientists have long wondered what, or who, drives these individuals to leave the safety of their family.

The urban foxes in Bristol have been studied continuously since 1977 giving a rare window into their normally secretive lives. While the rest of the city sleeps, a dedicated team of researchers from Bristol University's School of Biological Sciences spends numerous nights following radio-collared foxes, observing family life, and discovering cubs in the strangest of places.

Establishing family trees for the foxes used to be difficult, as during the male foxes often sneak off to mate with unknown females. However, by combining field observation with DNA paternity testing in the lab, the researchers have now succeeded in creating extensive fox family histories. Using this information, they found that the cub's with female family members determine its dispersal strategy.

The findings suggest male cubs with dominant mothers disperse to avoid inbreeding while their sisters remain to enjoy the benefits of living with their dominant mother figure. The opposite pattern is observed for cubs born to subordinate mothers.

Comparison of the dispersal strategies of cubs fathered by with those fathered by males outside of the family demonstrates that fathers appear to play no role in this decision.

Helen Whiteside, lead author of the study said: "There is a limited cost to the dominant male fox in allowing unrelated males to stay in the family group. Moreover, sneaky matings outside the family mean that dispersal is not a reliable mechanism for preventing between fathers and daughters. Consequently, control of cub dispersal is much more important for mothers than fathers.

"These findings have important implication for the evolution of dispersal and group living in social mammals, and provide a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the key biological process of dispersal."

Explore further: New species of mayfly discovered in India

More information: Whiteside HM, Dawson DA, Soulsbury CD, Harris S (2011) Mother Knows Best: Dominant Females Determine Offspring Dispersal in Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes). PLoS ONE 6(7): e22145. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022145

Related Stories

Foxes get frisky in the far north

Jul 17, 2007

Bees do it, chimps do it… Now it seems Arctic foxes do it, too. New research looking at the DNA fingerprints of canids in the Far North has revealed that foxes once thought to be monogamous are in fact quite frisky.

Study: Cheetahs not monogamous

May 31, 2007

A British study found that female cheetahs in Tanzania are prone to infidelity -- having cubs with several different fathers.

Brown Bears: The Guile and Wile of Reproduction

Nov 02, 2005

Female brown bears are driven to having many partners - not because of lust but as part of a sophisticated strategy for protecting future offspring. This surprising discovery is the result of a large-scale ...

Hyena Mothers Give Their Cubs a Helpful Dose of Hormones

Apr 26, 2006

Scientists have discovered that a dominant hyena puts her cubs on the road to success before they are born by passing on high levels of certain hormones that make her budding young leaders more aggressive and ...

Recommended for you

Breakthrough in coccidiosis research

16 hours ago

Biological researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) are a step closer to finding a new cost-effective vaccine for the intestinal disease, coccidiosis, which can have devastating effects on poultry ...

Vietnam's taste for cat leaves pets in peril

20 hours ago

The enduring popularity of "little tiger" as a snack to accompany a beer in Vietnam means that cat owners live in constant fear of animal snatchers, despite an official ban.

New species of mayfly discovered in India

22 hours ago

Scientists have discovered a new species of mayfly in the southern Western Ghats, a mountain range along the west coast of India. In fact, this is the first time that any mayfly belonging to the genus Labiobaetis has be ...

User comments : 0