Who is Earl the fox? Iowa State class studies red foxes on campus — and wants your help
Students in Dr. Mike Rentz’s mammalogy class at Iowa State are studying a red fox on campus — or maybe it’s more than one red fox. That’s one of the questions they hope their research will answer.
The class is asking the community for information about the fox, which they’ve affectionately named Earl, after former ISU dean Earl Heady.
“Dr. Rentz runs his classes a little differently,” said Jordan Guezimane, a junior from Fairfield, who is studying animal ecology as a pre-vet student. “He wants his students to be really engaged with what they’re learning about. So instead of just looking at books and pictures, he wants students to actively work.”
Guezimane leads the Red Fox Project along with Nina Priske, Christina Gute and Jessica Kline.
“We saw foxes throughout the years around campus,” Guezimane said. “So we thought it was good to get an idea of how many are actually on campus.
“We wanted to figure out: Where were they living? How many were on campus?”
The mammalogy class is in the data collection phase of the project, and that’s where other Iowa State students, staff and the Ames community overall can help.
“We’re using the ISU online campus map that’s used for tours and things like that,” Guezimane said. “It’s a map of the whole campus, and people can put markers on where they’ve seen foxes.”
The class asks data contributors to email the information and any available photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The project has already received more than 70 emails.
“We’re hoping for more, because the more we have, the more concrete it is,” Guezimane said.
There have been several fox sightings in the Jack Trice Stadium area, which he finds interesting.
“There are more wooded areas around campus,” he said. “You kind of expect them to be over there versus somewhere that it’s just concrete and buildings.”
Rentz said it's likely the presence of coyotes outside of town that makes living in town more attractive to foxes.
"It's amazing how bold some of the foxes have become though," Rentz said. "The other day, I saw a fox cross over the four lanes of University Avenue near the stadium, and it wasn't even running. It just trotted along.
"Some people say they've even seen a fox look both ways before crossing the street."
After the data collection phase, the group will trap at least one fox and put a collar on it, then release it so they can monitor the fox’s movements.
“We know there’s probably more than one fox on campus, but is it three? Is it 10? We just don’t know yet,” Guezimane said.
When people see foxes roaming around, they tend to think of them as wild dogs, he said. But in reality, foxes are different than that.
“They’ll find dens and hang out underground,” he said. “They’ll even chase rabbits underground a little bit.
“I think it’s just interesting. You would think they would be somewhere out in the countryside where there’s more mice and squirrels and things like that. Yet you’re finding them in people’s backyards.”
Guezimane wonders if being on campus has caused Earl and his fellow red foxes to become less afraid of people. Guezimane was involved in a different study last fall where students tried to see how close they could get to squirrels on campus, and he was able to get within a meter of them, almost close enough to pet.
Rentz and the students don't suggest that people approach foxes when they see them, though.
"We don't want to scare them away and traumatize them, but we also don't want them to become too tame," Rentz said. "It's a fine line, but we need to remember they are wild animals and respect that."
Anyone from the public is welcome to email the group at email@example.com with information about fox sightings in Ames. Photos would be helpful, too, so the group can try to find identifying characteristics between the individual foxes. For example, one has one white front foot.
“Letting us know where the sighting happened, the date, the time of day, that sort of thing would be really appreciated,” Guezimane said. “The more data we have, the better.”