Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mr Fox has a fantastic sense of direction as he uses the magnetic field to hunt

Foxy loxy: The predators combine their acute hearing with their uncanny sense of direction to time jumps perfectly

Foxes aren't just cunning - they also have a fantastic sense of direction, scientists have shown.

A new study has found that the creatures are able to detect the Earth's magnetic field and use their navigational skills to hunt mice, rabbits and voles.

In tests, animal behaviour experts discovered that foxes tend to face north east when jumping on prey, no matter their location or the time of day.

Researchers believe they combine their acute hearing with their uncanny sense of direction to time jumps perfectly.

The discovery means foxes join other migratory animals - including pigeons, turtles and whales - in being able to sense the points of the compass.

The same team of scientists has previously shown that cattle and deer tend to align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field when resting so that herds end up pointing in the same direction.

Prof Hynek Burda, of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, studied the behaviour of 84 wild red foxes at 65 locations across the Czech Republic as they pounced on food.

Foxes leap high into the air when hunting to catch their prey by surprise from above.
Over two years the researchers recorded 592 hunting jumps - making a note of the time of day, weather and direction of the leap.

They found that foxes preferred to face the north-
east before jumping. North-eastern facing leaps tended to be more successful, they report in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

"Foxes on the prowl tend to direct their jumps in a roughly north-eastern compass direction,'' he said.

"The tight clustering of preferred attack directions cannot be explained by an effect of light cues, since observations were carried out at different times of day.

"Nor was this clustering a response to wind direction which varied from observation to observation, and rarely came directly from the north or south."

They added: "We suggest that mousing red foxes may use the magnetic fields as a "range finder" or targeting system to measure distance to its prey and thus increase the accuracy of predatory attacks."

If foxes are unable to see their prey because of vegetation or snow cover, they animals approach their prey from the south west - using their hearing and their awareness of the magnetic field to get an accurate estimate of the distance they have to leap, the researchers said.

Foxes are relatively small - weighing around 12lbs, only a little heavier than a large cat.

They are solitary hunters and scavengers happy to eat vegetables, insects, food scraps from bins or small mammals. They rarely eat anything larger than a rabbit.

They were once country animals but since the 1930s have moved into cities and towns in large numbers. Around 30,000 foxes - or 14 per cent of the population - are now urban.

Foxes rely on their acute hearing rather than their sense of smell or vision, and seek out food with a "grab and go" approach -- removing it to a safe place before eating it, or burying it for later.

source: dailymail

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