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Volatile scent chemicals in the urine of the red fox, Vulpes vulpes


McLean, S and Nichols, DS and Davies, NW, Volatile scent chemicals in the urine of the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, PLoS ONE, 16, (3) Article e0248961. ISSN 1932-6203 (2021) [Refereed Article]


Copyright Statement

Copyright 2021 McLean et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

DOI: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0248961


The red fox is a highly adaptable mammal that has established itself world-wide in many different environments. Contributing to its success is a social structure based on chemical signalling between individuals. Urine scent marking behaviour has long been known in foxes, but there has not been a recent study of the chemical composition of fox urine. We have used solid-phase microextraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to analyze the urinary volatiles in 15 free-ranging wild foxes (2 female) living in farmlands and bush in Victoria, Australia. Foxes here are routinely culled as feral pests, and the urine was collected by bladder puncture soon after death. Compounds were identified from their mass spectra and Kovats retention indices. There were 53 possible endogenous scent compounds, 10 plant-derived compounds and 5 anthropogenic xenobiotics. Among the plant chemicals were several aromatic apocarotenoids previously found in greater abundance in the fox tail gland. They reflect the dietary consumption of carotenoids, essential for optimal health. One third of all the endogenous volatiles were sulfur compounds, a highly odiferous group which included thiols, methylsulfides and polysulfides. Five of the sulfur compounds (3-isopentenyl thiol, 1- and 2-phenylethyl methyl sulfide, octanethiol and benzyl methyl sulfide) have only been found in foxes, and four others (isopentyl methyl sulfide, 3-isopentenyl methyl sulfide, and 1- and 2-phenylethane thiol) only in some canid, mink and skunk species. This indicates that they are not normal mammalian metabolites and have evolved to serve a specific role. This role is for defence in musteloids and most likely for chemical communication in canids. The total production of sulfur compounds varied greatly between foxes (median 1.2, range 0.4–32.3 μg ‘acetophenone equivalents’/mg creatinine) as did the relative abundance of different chemical types. The urinary scent chemistry may represent a highly evolved system of semiochemicals for communication between foxes.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Keywords:fox, volatile scent chemicals
Research Division:Biological Sciences
Research Group:Ecology
Research Field:Ecology not elsewhere classified
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in the agricultural, food and veterinary sciences
UTAS Author:McLean, S (Professor Stuart McLean)
UTAS Author:Nichols, DS (Dr David Nichols)
UTAS Author:Davies, NW (Associate Professor Noel Davies)
ID Code:144023
Year Published:2021
Web of Science® Times Cited:2
Deposited By:Central Science Laboratory
Deposited On:2021-04-15
Last Modified:2021-10-13
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