As coyotes have spread outside their native regions from the western United States towards the east, they have started to hunt North Carolina’s two native species of fox. A new study led by North Carolina State University has found that preserving tree cover may be essential in helping the gray fox survive with coyotes in rural areas, most probably due to the fox’s ability to climb trees. However, in suburban forest fragments, gray foxes appeared to be able to easily coexist with the coyotes.
“Coyotes are well known to persecute smaller foxes,” said study co-author Roland Kays, an associate professor of Biology at NC State University. “They go out of their way, more than you see in other interactions between species, to really bully, chase and kill the smaller foxes. There is some reason for concern if this species is going to survive. How is that going to happen in an urban environment where you also have people?”
Professor Kays and his colleagues used wildlife photos taken by volunteers to find out in which places coyotes and gray foxes coexist. They discovered that the two species are most likely to be found together in regions with high housing density and low forest cover, such as the suburbs.
“These two species were more likely to use the same sites in suburban areas, especially small forested wood lots,” said study lead author Arielle Parsons, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State University. “We expected them to use these wood lots at different times to avoid each other, but actually we found that they use these suburban forest fragments at the same time.”
According to the scientists, the two species could coexist in the suburbs because coyotes are just moving through, without establishing territories. In rural areas though, coyotes and foxes are less likely to be seen together. However, gray foxes were more likely to inhabit rural regions with extensive tree cover.
“Gray foxes are very good at climbing trees; they have sharp claws,” said Professor Kays. “They’re one of the only dog relatives that can climb trees. Coyotes can’t. It could be that climbing trees helps them deal with coyotes.”
Thus, gray foxes appear to be at risk in areas with few houses and little tree cover. “There are things we can do to change the ways wildlife species are able to adapt to human-dominated environments. Reducing habitat fragmentation and preserving forest and green spaces can help enhance the ability for these species to coexist,” concluded Dr. Parsons.
The study is published in the journal Ecosphere.