Foxes at Huston-Tillotson University could face 'extinction' student project reveals

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Wild grey foxes are a common sight on Huston-Tillotson University’s campus in East Austin. A recent student revealed that their days may be numbered. A warming climate and development in the area could drive these foxes from their home and possibly to “extinction.”

“We realized that there is actually a significant correlation between temperature and fox behavior.,” said Nerisha Pillay, a senior in assistant professor Jason Ikpatt’s biology class.

Pillay and other students, including junior Ckyra Anthony, conducted a four-week study of the campus’ foxes using cameras set up outside their dens. Footage revealed that the foxes were spending more time inside their dens and less foraging during the warmer months.

Ipkatt said he was surprised by the results. As a small class project, they rarely get statistically significant data.

“I was so excited when the students called me over and saw oh, there actually is a statistically significant correlation between an environmental variable like temperature and unique Fox behavior,” said Ipkatt.

Huston Tillotson Fox 2
Cameras set up around campus have allowed students to observe campus foxes this semester. Credit: Jason Ikpatt Ph.D.)

Ipkatt said the sample size of the foxes and the length of time they studied them was relatively small.

Recent research in Chicago backed up the student’s findings. A study published this September in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution found similar results in cities like Chicago. “They’re seeing a virtual extinction of the gray fox population. And their wildlife experts say it’s partly due to climate and urbanization,” Pillay said.

The study cited Austin as a city that could potentially see similar changes, according to Pillay.

Foxes at Huston-Tillotson

The grey foxes aren’t a secret on campus. “When students approach the gray foxes on campus, they’re usually just like staring at you, and then just run away,” Anthony said.

Ikpatt said he chose the foxes to study while looking for a way to get his students to learn how to write a scientific paper. Previous experiments involved having the students sit outside dens and observe. This fall, he decided to use trail cameras to capture the foxes’ movements more frequently.

“They usually show a lot of activity during dusk and nighttime,” Anthony said.

Huston Tillotson Fox 3
Foxes at Huston-Tillotson have limited their time outdoors due to the extreme heat this summer, making it harder for them to find food. (Credit: Jason Ikpatt Ph.D.)

This summer was one of the hottest on record in Central Texas. It’s a warming trend that experts expect to continue as our climate grows hotter.

As the summer grew hotter, the foxes, much like us, spent more time indoors. This meant less time for foraging and mating. “When they do come out they’re very quick,” Pillay said.

Construction in Austin could also mean less habitat for the foxes. “We might think that extinction is far away, and we shouldn’t really worry about it, but it is a possibility,” Pillay said.

Ikpatt said the next step for the research would be expansion. This would require year-round monitoring of the foxes and over several years to track the trends.

“Although the foxes do have a great capacity to adapt to the changes that will come. I personally think that it’s our moral duty to do right by our neighbors in which you know, sometimes it can be four-legged mammals too,” Ipkatt said.

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