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Scientists spy the first ever fishing fox

He was sly fishing.

Red Fox

In the 2019 thriller Serenity — no, not that Serenity — a smalltown fisherman becomes embroiled in a murder plot which disrupts his whole life, and that’s even before he discovers what’s really going on. All he wants to do is be out on his boat, pulling fish from the water. Humans have been fishing since before recorded history, it’s an effective way to acquire resources and, to many, a relaxing way to spend a day.

Humans, however, aren’t the only animals to fish. Bears do it, some birds do it, and now we have evidence that foxes do it. In March of 2016, two researchers, Jorge Tobajas and Francisco Díaz-Ruiz, were surveying the area around the Valuengo reservoir in southern Extremadura, Spain. During their survey, they encountered a red fox who didn’t run away at their presence, so they settled down to watch him. Pretty quickly, they realized he was fishing, a behavior which had never before been documented in foxes. Their findings have been published in the journal Ecology.

As they watched, the fox approached the shore’s edge. Carp were densely packed in the river system, having collected there to spawn. The fish were enraptured by the melee of reproduction. This is what their whole lives had been building up to and so they were distracted. Maybe there was an excess of food available, maybe they were easy pickings; whatever the reason, the fox took full advantage of the situation. He waded into the water and struck, pulling fish after fish out of the river and onto the shore.

After each successful strike, the fox carried his prize out of the water to a spot a few dozen yards away on the shore. Whether he was hiding, burying, or just storing them until the hunting session was over is unclear. Over the course of an hour and a half, the fox successfully captured 10 fish through 12 strike attempts, a success rate of over 80 percent. At one point, a female fox arrived, took one of the fish, and left. The male didn’t seem to mind, and researchers assume she was his mate coming to help carry the groceries home to the pups, though none of that has been confirmed.

Because humans have the cringeworthy yet scientifically legitimate habit of combing through other animals’ excrement, we already knew that foxes sometimes eat fish. We had found their bones in fox droppings, but it wasn’t clear if they were actually hunting fish or simply scavenging any fishy remains they happened to come across. Now we know.

While this is the first recorded instance of a fox actively fishing for food, it’s unlikely this is the isolated behavior of one individual. What’s more, his incredible success, catching fish after fish with seldom any mistakes, suggests a well-honed behavior.

It wouldn’t be without precedent to discover that foxes are professional fishers and have been for quite some time. In the United States, the gray wolf has been observed fishing in a similar manner. The fact that there are two species, separated by an ocean and both exhibiting this behavior could suggest fishing is an ancestral trait which is much older than we previously realized. It could also mean that other canids and closely related species might also be capable of fishing. That will, of course, require additional research. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if your leisurely day on the water is disturbed by a fox who’s a better fisher than you.

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