The city-fox phenomenon: genetic consequences of a recent colonization of urban habitat

Mol Ecol. 2003 Mar;12(3):647-56. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-294x.2003.01768.x.


The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of the best-documented examples of a species that has successfully occupied cities and their suburbs during the last century. The city of Zurich (Switzerland) was colonized by red foxes 15 years ago and the number of recorded individuals has increased steadily since then. Here, we assessed the hypothesis that the fox population within the city of Zurich is isolated from adjacent rural fox populations against the alternative hypothesis that urban habitat acts as a constant sink for rural dispersers. We examined 11 microsatellite loci in 128 foxes from two urban areas, separated by the main river crossing the city, and three adjacent rural areas from the region of Zurich. Mean observed heterozygosity across individuals and the number of detected alleles were lower for foxes collected within the city as compared with their rural conspecifics. Genetic differentiation was significantly lower between rural than between rural and urban populations, and highest value of pairwise FST was recorded between the two urban areas. Our results indicate that the two urban areas were independently founded by a small number of individuals from adjacent rural areas resulting in genetic drift and genetic differentiation between rural and urban fox populations. Population admixture and immigration analysis revealed that urban-rural gene flow was higher than expected from FST statistics. In the five to seven generations since colonization, fox density has dramatically increased. Currently observed levels of migration between urban and rural populations will probably erode genetic differentiation over time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Animals
  • Cities
  • Computer Simulation
  • DNA / chemistry
  • DNA / genetics
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Foxes / genetics*
  • Foxes / growth & development
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Male
  • Microsatellite Repeats / genetics
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / veterinary
  • Population Dynamics
  • Switzerland


  • DNA