Influences on red fox cub dispersal

A PhD study by Helen Whiteside.

Supervised by Stephen Harris.

Radiocollared fox
© Mammal Research Unit
Photo by Stephen Harris


Dispersal is a fundamental biological process. It is defined as the movement of an individual from the place of its birth to a new location where, if given the opportunity, it will breed. It has important consequences in disease epidemiology, individual fitness, population dynamics, gene flow and species distribution. Most dispersal studies focus on how different environmental and population level factors affect the dispersal process. In contrast, there have been few studies looking at behavioural aspects of dispersal, particularly the behavioural causes underlying the choice to disperse. To fully understand the combination of factors influencing dispersal it is necessary to further examine the behavioural differences between philopatric and dispersing individuals including social interactions and dominance relationships. This is this area of dispersal that my study is focusing on.

The red fox Vulpes vulpes is the most widely distributed mammal carnivore in the world. There have been extensive studies on the species due to the fox's role as a vector of rabies. This has resulted in the collection of a large amount of knowledge on the red fox physiology, behaviour and general ecology, making it an excellent model species for investigating dispersal. To understand the relationships between sociality, mortality and dispersal in fox populations requires long term research. At Bristol I have a unique opportunity to study dispersal using a long term data set which spans across a wide range of ecological conditions. Detailed information on the behaviour and physiology of a large number of individuals is available and, more recently, genetic data has been used to establish parentage.


Impact and significance

Using behavioural observations, hormone and genetic analysis this investigation combines well established techniques from a variety of disciplines to provide insight into a novel question. Urban ecology is critical for connecting half of the world's people with the natural environment. As the red fox is one of the most widespread top urban predators in the world further investigation into their ecology is particularly important in maintaining urban biodiversity. The red fox is also a key model species and the more we learn about its dispersal and social organisation allows us to shed light on the evolutionary forces resulting in group living in other social mammals.

For more information on foxes visit our new website:

Logo and link to The Fox Website

If you live in Bristol and in particular in northwest Bristol (Stoke Bishop, Henleaze, Coombe Dingle, Sea Mills, Westbury-on-Trym and Sneyd Park) please report sightings of collared tagged foxes (see pic above) and fox cubs (contact details below). We can use these sightings to reconstruct the dispersal paths and life-histories of our tagged foxes

Contact details

Helen Whiteside
Mammal Research Unit
School of Biological Sciences
University of Bristol
Woodland Road
Bristol BS8 1UG, U.K.

Telephone: 0117 9288918