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Foxes may have been man's best friend before dogs came along

A new study led by the University of Oxford has found that an extinct fox in Argentina – known as Dusicyon avus – may have once been man’s best friend, sharing a powerful bond with early humans

This species, which resembled a sizable dog, appears to have shared a significant bond with hunter-gatherer groups 1,500 years ago, a relationship hinted at by the unique burial of a single fox’s remains alongside 21 human skeletons. 

The findings offer a rare glimpse into human-animal relationships in prehistoric South America, suggesting the fox might have been more than just a wild animal to the people of that era.

Identifying the extinct fox as a human companion

“There are several factors that led to identifying our fox as a companion or a pet rather than as part of the humans’ diet,” said study co-author Ophelie Lebrasseur, an archaeologist at Oxford. 

The team noted the absence of cut marks on the animal’s bones, the fox’s burial within a human site, and the dietary parallels between the fox and the humans as significant indicators of a companionship rather than a predatory relationship.

Human-animal dynamics in ancient times 

This partnership challenges our understanding of human-animal dynamics in ancient times, particularly in South America. Dusicyon avus, which was about the size of a German shepherd and lived across vast regions of the continent, including Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, went extinct approximately 500 years ago under mysterious circumstances. 

The introduction of domestic dogs to the region has been suggested as a possible factor in their extinction. However, the study argues that hybridization between the two species likely had minimal impact due to the low probability of producing fertile offspring.

More about Dusicyon avus

The Argentinean warrah, also known by its scientific name Dusicyon avus, is an extinct species of fox-like canid that was native to the mainland of South America. 

Falkland Islands wolf 

This species is particularly interesting because it shares a common name with the better-known Falkland Islands wolf or warrah (Dusicyon australis), which also became extinct in the 19th century. 

The Falkland Islands wolf holds a unique place in natural history as the only native land mammal of the Falkland Islands. 

The confusion between the two extinct species can arise from their common names and similar genus designation, but it’s important to distinguish between them due to their different habitats and physical characteristics.

Distribution of Dusicyon avus

Dusicyon avus inhabited parts of Argentina and possibly other areas in South America. Like its island relative, it became extinct, but it is believed to have disappeared much earlier, likely before the arrival of Europeans to the continent. 

The reasons behind its extinction are not well documented but could involve changes in habitat, climate, and competition with other species.

Paleontological findings 

Information about Dusicyon avus is limited compared to its insular cousin due to the scant fossil record and the early period of its extinction. The scientific study of Dusicyon avus relies heavily on paleontological findings, including bone and dental analysis, to infer its size, diet, and ecological niche. 

These studies suggest that Dusicyon avus was similar in size to small to medium-sized modern-day canids and likely had a diet that included both meat and plant material, indicating an omnivorous lifestyle.

The extinction of Dusicyon avus and its relationship to other South American canids contribute valuable information to the understanding of the evolutionary history and biogeography of canines in the Americas. 

Bond between foxes and humans

Foxes are intelligent and adaptable creatures inhabiting various ecosystems worldwide, from forests and grasslands to urban areas. While they are often portrayed as cunning and mischievous in folklore, foxes play a significant role in our ecosystems and have a complex relationship with humans.

Ecological importance

Foxes serve as both predators and prey in their natural habitats. They help maintain balance in ecosystems by controlling populations of small mammals, such as rodents and rabbits.

Additionally, foxes act as a food source for larger predators, including wolves, coyotes, and birds of prey. Their presence contributes to the overall health and diversity of the environments they inhabit.

Fox conflicts and coexistence with humans

As human populations expand and encroach upon wildlife habitats, conflicts between foxes and humans have increased. Foxes sometimes venture into urban and suburban areas in search of food and shelter, leading to concerns about property damage and the potential spread of diseases.

However, many wildlife organizations work to educate the public about coexisting with foxes and implementing humane solutions to minimize conflicts.

Admiration and conservation

Despite the challenges, many people admire foxes for their beauty, intelligence, and adaptability. Some individuals even keep foxes as pets, although this practice remains controversial due to the animals’ wild nature and specific care requirements.

Conservation efforts aim to protect fox populations and their habitats, recognizing their ecological importance and the need to maintain biodiversity.

The relationship between foxes and humans is multifaceted, shaped by both conflict and admiration. As we strive to coexist with these remarkable creatures, it is essential to understand their ecological roles, address conflicts responsibly, and appreciate the unique place they hold in our natural world.

Extinct Dusicyon avus fox and its human partnership 

The question of whether Dusicyon avus could have been domesticated or used as pets remains open. “Some individuals may have been less scared of humans, which may have facilitated the development of a closer bond, but we cannot currently confirm this,” said Lebrasser.

“We do believe though that finding a Dusicyon avus specimen with such a close relationship with the hunter-gatherer community is very rare and really interesting, and represents quite a unique case of a human-wild South American fox partnership.”

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


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