Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A range-wide synthesis and timeline for phylogeographic events in the red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Verena E Kutschera1*, Nicolas Lecomte23, Axel Janke14, Nuria Selva5, Alexander A Sokolov6, Timm Haun1, Katharina Steyer7, Carsten Nowak7 and Frank Hailer1*

Author Affiliations

1 Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung, Senckenberganlage 25, 60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

2 Department of Arctic and Marine Biology, University of Tromsø, N-9037 Tromsø, Norway

3 Department of Environment, Government of Nunavut, X0A0L0 Igloolik, Canada

4 Institute for Ecology, Evolution and Diversity, Goethe University Frankfurt, Max-von-Laue-Straße 13, 60438 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

5 Institute of Nature Conservation, Polish Academy of Sciences, Mickiewicza 33, 31-120 Krakow, Poland

6 Ecological Research Station of the Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Labytnangi, 629400, Russia

7 Conservation Genetics Group, Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt, Clamecystraße 12, 63571 Gelnhausen, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:114  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-114

Published: 5 June 2013



Many boreo-temperate mammals have a Pleistocene fossil record throughout Eurasia and North America, but only few have a contemporary distribution that spans this large area. Examples of Holarctic-distributed carnivores are the brown bear, grey wolf, and red fox, all three ecological generalists with large dispersal capacity and a high adaptive flexibility. While the two former have been examined extensively across their ranges, no phylogeographic study of the red fox has been conducted across its entire Holarctic range. Moreover, no study included samples from central Asia, leaving a large sampling gap in the middle of the Eurasian landmass.


Here we provide the first mitochondrial DNA sequence data of red foxes from central Asia (Siberia), and new sequences from several European populations. In a range-wide synthesis of 729 red fox mitochondrial control region sequences, including 677 previously published and 52 newly obtained sequences, this manuscript describes the pattern and timing of major phylogeographic events in red foxes, using a Bayesian coalescence approach with multiple fossil tip and root calibration points. In a 335 bp alignment we found in total 175 unique haplotypes. All newly sequenced individuals belonged to the previously described Holarctic lineage. Our analyses confirmed the presence of three Nearctic- and two Japan-restricted lineages that were formed since the Mid/Late Pleistocene.


The phylogeographic history of red foxes is highly similar to that previously described for grey wolves and brown bears, indicating that climatic fluctuations and habitat changes since the Pleistocene had similar effects on these highly mobile generalist species. All three species originally diversified in Eurasia and later colonized North America and Japan. North American lineages persisted through the last glacial maximum south of the ice sheets, meeting more recent colonizers from Beringia during postglacial expansion into the northern Nearctic. Both brown bears and red foxes colonized Japan’s northern island Hokkaido at least three times, all lineages being most closely related to different mainland lineages. Red foxes, grey wolves, and brown bears thus represent an interesting case where species that occupy similar ecological niches also exhibit similar phylogeographic histories.

Carnivores; Divergence time estimate; Generalist; mtDNA control region; Phylogeography; Vulpes