Tuesday, October 25, 2016
2:55 AM Animals, Belyaev’s experiment Lyudmila Trut, Fox Domestication, Fox Domestication Still Active, Foxes, News., Soviet Era No comments
Have you ever seen picture or video of foxes, with their pointy snouts and ears, a mouth that opens into a smile, a long body standing low to the ground and a big bushy tail? Many would easily describe the animal to be cute and adorable, and some may even go so far as to want one for a pet.
It sounds like a good idea, but realistically you probably should just forget it. On first brush foxes are among the most instinctively wild animals in the world, as difficult to tame as training a zebra as a mount. That is, not completely impossible but extremely difficult and rarely successful.
For the curious, yes there are some foxes in the world that can be kept as pets, as not only are they tame, but utterly domesticated too. According to a special feature story on BBC, their population is centered today in Russia, at the Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics. This uncommon occurrence is the result of a breeding experiment over half a century old, from the days of the Soviet Union even. This process not only created a sizable number of domestic foxes from their wild progenitors but also shed light on the very process of domesticating animals, like early man did for dogs, cats and livestock.
During the late 1950s the Russian scientist Dmitry K. Belyaev began his experiment to see if it was possible to completely domesticate a wild animal. He based his study on foxes, in particular the native Russian Red Fox, because they are distantly related to domestic dogs yet are a distinct species of their own.
After gathering sample foxes from Soviet fur farms, Belyaev and his assistants began their selective breeding method. By studying the foxes’ behavior when near humans and during attempts at feeding them by hand, those subjects that reacted aggressively were separated while a select group of foxes that showed tame behavior at first blush were chosen to be parents of a new generation of study animals. They repeated the process for every succeeding generation, acclimatizing the animals to human contact without actually training them.
By the fourth experimental generation the results were already astonishing. The foxes have begun behaving like dogs, craving human attention and asking for it by whining and wagging their tails.
In generations after that, the scientists noticed that the foxes’ bodies have changed as well, with their pointed ears turning floppy and their bushy tails curved, their solid color coats becoming mottled. In roughly five decades, Belyaev’s experiment achieved domestication that long ago must’ve taken hundreds upon thousands of years.
Belyaev died in 1985, but his then-intern Lyudmila Trut continues overseeing the project to this day. While the domestication process has already been proven, their next step with international research partners is to look at the genetic side of becoming domestic, believing that the answer may even help explain how we humans became the way we are.
Photo Credit to www.pixbam.com