Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Coauthored by one of the lead scientists on a still-in-progress 60-year fox domestication experiment in Russia. They tell a compelling story filled with ups and downs, joy and heartbreak, backroom politicking, and all manner of close calls. They also offer a trove of insights into genetics and the process of domestication they have learned from domesticating a new species.

The researchers bred wild foxes and selectively bred the tamest ones. Selecting for this single trait came with an entire package of other new traits in just a few generations. Besides increased docility, the descendants of tame foxes also developed different coats and markings, smaller brains and jaws, reduced stress hormones, and changed vocalizations. They also retained youthful traits longer, or even permanently–geneticists call this neotony. The process exactly mirrors what happened to dogs as they were domesticated from wolves.

Strangely enough, some humans also exhibit neotonous traits, such as retaining blue eyes or blonde hair into adulthood.

Non-tame foxes bred from the same parents were also kept for breeding as an experimental control. They developed none of these traits.

Another insight is that humans are a domesticated species—we did it to ourselves, and reap the benefits to this day. Domestication is arguably a two-way process, with other species such as wheat domesticating us at the same we domesticated it. The story of the great fox experiment also shows the love that people and animals can have for each other, which warmed this pet owner’s heart.

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