Foxes and Ecosystem Services at Western Ecology Division

By Randy Comeleo

Late this spring, a self-operated wildlife camera captured several photos of adult gray foxes carrying food items from surrounding wild lands onto the grounds of EPA’s Western Ecology Division (WED) Laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon.

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a recent photo of an adult gray fox returning to EPA Western Ecology Division with a camas pocket gopher.

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a recent photo of an adult gray fox returning to EPA Western Ecology Division with a camas pocket gopher.

Within a few weeks, photos from the camera revealed why the adults were carrying, and not consuming, their prey.  The pair had denned in a quiet corner of our campus and were delivering food to six pups!

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a photo of nursing gray fox pups at the EPA Western Ecology Division.

A self-operated wildlife camera captures a photo of nursing gray fox pups at the EPA Western Ecology Division.

The gray fox is a mesocarnivore – a mid-sized carnivore in which 50-70% of the diet is the flesh of another animal.  Mesocarnivores are often more numerous when residing in close proximity to humans where their foraging activities can provide an important ecosystem service: keeping the level of property damage by rodents to an acceptable level.

We have been thrilled to observe these usually secretive small canids carrying food for their pups, basking in the sun, and even climbing trees!  Gray foxes have adaptations such as short, powerful legs and strong hooked claws which enable them to climb trees and avoid larger predators like coyotes.

Four gray fox pups enjoy the early morning sun at the EPA Western Ecology Division (photo by Bonnie Smith).

Four gray fox pups enjoy the early morning sun at the EPA Western Ecology Division (photo by Bonnie Smith).

The pups are now learning to hunt with their parents and will forage on their own in several weeks.  The family will likely remain together until autumn, when the youngsters reach sexual maturity and head-out on their own.

About the Author: Randy Comeleo is an Ecologist for EPA’s Western Ecology Division research lab. He works primarily with the Air, Climate, and Energy research program as a Geographic Information System Analyst.

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