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Scenting television foxes

11 May 2012

Scenting television foxes - web

A Cardiff scientist has been helping Channel Four’s Foxes Live to analyse the scent marks of the increasingly urban creatures.

Scent communication is often thought of as the most important method of communication for mammals. Many species of mammals leave long-lasting scent-marks in prominent places, possibly to advertise reproductive status, to signal the use of resources or to mark territory.

The scent is often a complex blend of chemicals. More than 40 years ago, researchers found 12 volatile components in the secretion of a female fox . Now this research has been repeated, in a collaboration between Dr Eleanor Kean, an ecologist from the School of Biosciences and Windfall films for Channel 4’s Foxes Live: Wild in the City, running this week.

Employing technology used in food, perfume, pharmaceutical, clinical and forensic industries, analysis of the secretion from an adult female fox uncovered more than 80 compounds, many of which are similar to those in the anal gland secretion of otters. The most common chemicals were benzaldehyde, that has a characteristic pleasant almond smell, 1-octen-3-ol, also known as mushroom alcohol which has a moldy or meaty odour and the citrusy smelling (E)-2-octen-1-ol.

Dr Kean said: "We don’t know exactly what the foxes are encoding in these secretions. We know from our study of otters that their complex mixtures of odours differ with the age, sex and reproductive status and even individual identity. It is likely the same is true for foxes but we need to analyse of many more samples to work out what the foxes are saying. The number of compounds we have found in the secretions suggests the foxes are leaving some very complex and possibly multiple messages, for example about their dominance or health."


School of Biosciences