Here is an interesting fact about Red Fox: thanks to DNA analysis, we now have some evidence that the Red Fox we see around the Jersey Shore aren’t necessarily the ancestors of European Fox imported by early settlers which has long been assumed (and which I repeated here, quite emphatically, yesterday). Instead, DNA suggests their great-great-great (x30) grandparents actually came from much closer to home, but still pretty far away: Canada.
Thanks to an alert, anonymous commenter, we got a link here to this fascinating, scientific look into how the sudden appearance of Red Fox might have occurred in New Jersey. Have a read (click here):
The origin of recently established red fox populations in the United States: translocations or natural range expansions?
Red Fox aren’t considered to be native to New Jersey, and even really the Eastern U.S. or any lowland areas of the U.S. for that matter. But they are surely native to North America. It is well established that they started showing up in greater numbers around these parts not long after Europeans started bringing over their European Red Fox because they were more fun to hunt than our native Gray Fox. The connection seemed obvious. Some of those hunting Fox never got caught on the hunt, so have been hiding out all of these years creating new generations of transplanted Fox. It’s a sexy story.
But what this study shows is that the DNA of Red Fox found around the mid Atlantic does not really match that of the Red Fox which would have come from Europe. Instead, it matches that of the Red Fox found way up north in Canada.
So how exactly did those Canadian Red Fox make it all the way down here and find a suitable home, and why so suddenly after the Europeans arrived? This study points to the practice of clear cutting hardwood forests to make farmland. Not only did this open up suitable habitat for the Red Fox, but that, combined with hunting pressure, drove out the Wolves and Coyotes who would have been the Red Fox’s main predators. What’s interesting is that this all happened around the same time. The study also suggests that some of those escaped hunting Fox did in fact manage to breed with the Canadian Foxes… just not to the level once believed. So the problem is bigger than just European Fox… it is Canadian Fox too!
It may seem like splitting hairs as far as the recent discussion here is concerned: who cares, in relation to the effect on our local wildlife and heritage, if the Red Fox came from Europe or Canada? They are both pretty far away. Does it matter in terms of how we determine the Red Fox’s relative value against their destruction of our local animals and way of life? Either way, they probably speak French right? And even if some future study shows that the origin of all the Red Fox in the world is actually Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, isn’t the real issue that they are a “human subsidized predator” whose destruction of our local wildlife is highly unnatural and being artificially caused and supported by us?
It matters for a couple of reasons. First, it matters because I love those true crime documentary murder shows. I always have. But there was a period in the nineties when affordable DNA testing first appeared on the scene and those shows got very, very boring. Since DNA evidence was so new it would be the big break in the case in every show. And the moment you saw some suspect leaving some DNA somewhere, you’d roll you eyes, say “Sheeesh! I know where this is going!” and change the channel. But later, as DNA evidence became cheaper, faster, and more accurate, they started going back and revisiting really, really old cold cases and applying new DNA techniques, and BAM! Solving them conclusively after decades. It is a thrill that we can still shine fresh scientific light on old questions like “how did we wind up with Red Fox on the beach in New Jersey” using new methods of investigation.
And second, it matters because the fact that we’re talking about these more subtle issues at all, in an open minded, cooperative, and truthful way, suggests that maybe we can elevate the conversation about the Fox, The Plover, and the Beach to more truthful and helpful planes. We are making really tough, challenging decisions about the coast everyday… even when we don’t realize that we are.
We can’t guarantee we make the right choices all the time, but we can guarantee that we try our best to understand the whole picture of the coast. If you love the beach, it’s the right thing to do.
Given this new information, it still remains clear to me that the Red Fox was not part of “nature’s plan” for the beach and that by supporting them artificially here and subsidizing them we are actually choosing to kill off our native animals, especially the Piping Plover. I’m not comfortable with that, so I support culling the Red Fox as the lesser of the two evils. On both sides of the issue, people are generally committed to animal welfare, against cruelty to animals, and wanting to preserve the natural balance of things. It is just more difficult to see how cruel to animals, and devastating to our natural heritage and the things which make New Jersey’s coast utterly special, not culling the Red Fox is.