Late night sprints

Oh you don’t know how hard it is to resist the allure of reinvigorating a powerful internet meme!  You’ll see why soon enough…

Last night I gave a little talk on birds down in South Carolina.  I was driving back home around 9 down a fairly dark road.  During the day, I think there is quite a bit of traffic on this highway, but at night, it was pretty empty and there wasn’t much in the way of additional lighting.  Out of the corner of my eye, I did see a little blob moving sort of quickly.  I slowed down the car a bit and watched that little blob pick up speed and sprint through the shine of my headlights.  It was a Red Fox.  The bushy tail and dark patches on the ears and tail were distinctive, even in that light.  I was sort of amazed to be able to get such a nice view of it, even if it was at 40mph.  That little fox, though, really upped its speed quite a bit, which made me wonder a couple of things:  1.  How fast do they go?  and 2.  What was it doing out there in the middle of the road?

The first answer is easier to find. People have studied various aspects of the speed of all sorts of animals for a long time in order to understand some of the mechanics of movement.  I found one record for maximum speed in the fox listed as 42km/h (~26mph).

Heard-Booth, A.N. and E.C. Kirk.  2012.  The influence of maximum running speed on eye size:  a  test of Leuckart’s law in mammals.  Anatomical Record 295: 1053-1062.

The second question is much harder to address. It’s like the perpetual chicken question.  Why did the fox cross the road?  Well, maybe there really was something on the other side.  Or maybe competition with other foxes or with coyotes was driving it to change food resources.

There is evidence that foxes are quite good at shifting resources in the presence of competition from coyotes.  It’s quite possible that this little fox was out foraging in the night looking for some of the smaller mammals that advantage of some of things that end up along road sides.

Theberge, J.B. and C.H.R. Wedeles.  1989.  Prey selection and habitat partitioning in sympatric coyote and red fox populations, southwest Yukon.  Canadian Journal of Zoology.  67:  1285-1290.  

So, in the end, the only way to answer question #2 for certain would have been for me to follow that fox.  With those speeds, though, I would have been hard-pressed to chase it through the shrubs on the side of the road.  I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering what does that fox eat…

P.S.  I couldn’t resist the power of the meme.

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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