Communication in red foxes (Vulpes vulpes): the code of scent marks

A PhD study by Janosch Arnold. Funded by DAAD.

Supervised by Stephen Harris.

fox sitting
© Mammal Research Unit
Photo by Jane Bowry


Communication plays a major role in the ecology of mammals. Communication can be through visual, vocal or olfactory signals (scent marks). In contrast to visual or vocal signals, scent marks do not require the presence of a receiver whilst submitting a message, but once posted, they provide information for the receiver. This information lasts for an unknown time period, depending on the time of secretion. Scent marks are used for territorial demarcations and to transmit information about the sender.

The posting of messages is important to provide communication over large distances. This can be of importance, for instance to state territorial claims and to avoid harmful encounters, or to support the process of reproduction. Hence, the assessment of conspecifics is a key element in mammal behaviour. In group living mammals, another essential component arises: the identification of other group members.

For more information on foxes visit our new website:

Logo and link to The Fox Website

In Canids, urine and glandular secretions are the main methods of olfactory communication. These substances allow the fox to leave an individual signature, recognisable to every passing conspecific. The main active components of those odours are volatile chemicals that are detected by the olfactory sense of the animals.


The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has been chosen to investigate the ecological role of olfactory communication and data will be collected from a wild population in Bristol. The study will specifically examine the behavioural patterns of scent communication in foxes. Also chemical traits of scent will be investigated. Differences in scent profiles of foxes will be examined with regard to sex, season, age and physiological status. Different sources of glandular material will be analysed separately. In addition, foxes that are recovered dead will be autopsied for histological examination of their glands.

Urine and faeces are known to be important territorial markers, this leads to the conclusion that they must contain a message regarding potential strength or weakness of an individual. To reveal behavioural aspects of communication, a marking study will be conducted on our study site in Bristol. To detect patterns of defaecation, marked baits will be fed to foxes at feeding sites. The coloured faeces can later be found in the vicinity and assigned to a certain fox territory.

Overall, the study will investigate the red fox as a model for scent marking behaviour in mammals. Research will focus on specific traits of the individual fox to gain insight in the complex structures which influence chemical communication.

Research project

A research project by Johanna Hofmann is run in parallel to this PhD.

Contact details

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

Telephone: 0117 9287593
Email: Janosch Arnold