WHY WOULD A FOX ENJOY A DEAD POSSUM?

by Whit Gibbons

January 15, 2017

When I saw the fox stick its face down onto a road-killed possum and then roll around on its back to get a thorough coating of the dead animal smell, I was reminded of every dog I have ever had. To watch a dog eat or squirm around on top of a rotting animal or other disgusting item is to observe one of their most undesirable behaviors. But watching a fox perform the act was fascinating, as it would not be coming home with me to jump on the couch.

I have previously extolled the virtues of wildlife cameras in allowing us to glimpse parts of the natural world we would otherwise seldom see. Wildlife biologists and hunters commonly use such cameras for ecological studies or to assess hunting opportunities for game species. I use them to find out what animals are in the vicinity of our cabin at night and what they are doing.

Observing the fox’s enthusiastic behavior upon finding a dead possum did not happen by chance. I had put the road-killed possum at the edge of the field bordering our woods two days earlier and set up the camera to see who would visit. Using fresh road kill to set up a scavenger feeding station is like putting sunflower seeds in a bird feeder.

Tossing a steady supply of dead possums, coons and gray squirrels into your backyard in town is not recommended. Though you might enjoy the show, your neighbors are likely to be less enthusiastic. But setting up a scavenger buffet in a remote rural habitat is acceptable, and the customers, who come mostly at night, are generally more interesting than blue jays and house finches.

In viewing the photos, I was interested to see that wild foxes can exhibit the same behavior as dogs when they find a smelly mess on the ground. I wondered why they do so.

Scent rolling, as it is called, did not evolve simply as a pointless exercise that members of the dog family engage in when they are bored. Presumably, the behavior in domestic dogs is a purposeless holdover from their wild ancestors. But for foxes and other wild animals, the action must have a function, although behavioral biologists do not agree on what it might be.

Some wildlife biologists posit that wolves roll on carrion or animal droppings to bring information back to the pack about the presence in the vicinity of a prey species, such as deer or elk. A predator might also be providing evidence to a mate of its own prowess at finding prey. Likewise, being made aware of a competing species or predator nearby might be useful. A fox might take it as a warning if its mate came home smelling like bobcat or coyote dung.

Another proposal has been that a fox may mask or camouflage its own scent when sneaking up on a rabbit or mouse. Of course, one has to wonder about any prey animal that would not be alarmed upon smelling a long-dead possum approaching, so I’m not enamored with that hypothesis.

Another suggestion has been that a predator might roll around on a dead animal in order to mark its territory by leaving its own smell. But how detectable would a live animal’s scent be amid the overpowering smell of a rotting carcass? Another idea is that to dogs, wolves and foxes the sense of smell is dominant and they may enjoy putting on a new scent the way some people like to stand out with their choice of perfume, jewelry or unconventional clothing.

My appreciation for wildlife cameras has grown immeasurably with the realization that they not only show me what is running around in the area but also reveal normally unseen behaviors. When we uncover wildlife’s hidden biodiversity and observe what it is doing, we enter a new realm of understanding and appreciation for the natural habitats that surround us.

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