In Brazil’s southern region, an animal rehabilitation center took in a peculiar-looking canine in 2021. Despite resembling a dog in many ways, the creature’s long, pointed ears and tree-climbing tendencies were more reminiscent of the Pampas fox, a local species. The veterinarians who cared for the animal observed its unusual behavior and noted that it refused to eat standard dog food, preferring instead to dine on rats.
That’s when they started wondering if they had discovered a new animal altogether.
Caretakers began to wonder if it might be a hybrid—a mixture of domestic dog and some local wild canid. They contacted geneticists Thales Renato Ochotorena de Freitas from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul and Rafael Kretschmer from the Universidade Federal de Pelotas who, last month, published a study confirming the animal was the world’s first documented fox-dog. The finding excited and intrigued experts in animal genetics, according to National Geographic.
“What a strange hybrid beast!” wrote Roland Kays, a biologist with North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, on X (formerly Twitter), alongside a photo of the creature and link to the study.
He added that while cross-species hybridization is well known among more closely related animals like dogs and wolves, the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris) and the Pampas fox (Lycalopex gymnocerus) belong to “two genera separated by 6.7 million years.”
“This is what one might expect to see in trees, but not vertebrates,” said Loren Reiseberg, a geneticist at the University of British Columbia. “It is like humans producing a viable hybrid with chimpanzees!”
The creature, a female, was named “Dogxim,” a cross between “dog” and “graxaim do campo,” the Portuguese name for Pampas fox. And while the first, it may not be the last of its kind. Environmental changes could possibly make more dog-fox hybrids in the future—a prospect that could have problematic consequences.
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Researchers have been astonished at the new animal. “She was an amazing animal, really a hybrid between a pampas fox and a dog,” Flávia Ferrari, a conservationist that worked with the animal during her recovery, told The Telegraph.
“It was not as docile as a dog, but it also lacked the aggressiveness expected of a wild canid when handled.
“She had a shy and cautious personality, generally preferring to stay away from people. Over the time she was hospitalised for treatment, I believe she started to feel safer.”
Despite its fear of humans, the dogxim over time allowed some to approach if they were cautious and calm, Ms Ferrari said.
“So, in some moments, she allowed herself to be touched and even caressed, also interacting, and sometimes even playing with toys,” she added.
Based on an examination of the mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited solely from the mother, it appears likely that the creature’s mother was a Pampas fox and its father was a dog.
“So far, we have no scientific evidence that there are other hybrids in this region. However, we suspect that this case we have described is not the only one,” Bruna Szynwelski told Newsweek.