Image: James Marvin Phelps, Linnea, Wikimedia Commons

Foxes are using mountain lion scent to disguise themselves and evade attacks from competitive coyote enemies.

The gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, is endemic to portions of North America, South America, and Southern Canada, predominantly inhabiting large ranges of forests and grasslands. They stand anywhere from 30-45 inches in height and weigh up to sixteen pounds. Gray foxes prefer to feed on rabbits, rodents, and heavy amounts of fruit.

These animals are remarked for their uncanny ability to climb trees and are the only canid in America capable of doing so. Even more astonishing is how they have adapted to become masters of disguise.

Ecologist Max Allen has been extensively studying puma behavior in the California mountains. He uses hidden cameras to monitor nighttime mountain lion activity, analyzing the movements of puma males and respective marking habits. He has identified twenty-six different sites over the course of the last four years repeatedly visited by pumas and has made a very unusual discovery.

Image: Dcrjsr, Wikimedia Commons

In addition to mountain lions, a number of gray foxes were visiting the puma marking territories on a regular basis. The hidden cameras documented nearly 1000 incidents of foxes at the selected sites and a majority of them were captured rubbing their faces onto the puma scent. 

The repeated occurrences provide enough evidence to suggest that gray foxes use puma scent disguise as a sort of survival mechanism. The research team has decided predator elusion is the predominant reason. 

“Gray foxes climb trees to avoid predators,” Allen reported to NewsScientist. “In many cases, they probably only need a few seconds’ hesitation from a coyote for them to get up a tree. Smelling like a puma might give them that time.”

These findings are documented in the Journal of Ethology.