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Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment

Foxes bred for tamability in a 40-year experiment exhibit remarkable transformations that suggest an interplay between behavioral genetics and development

Lyudmila Trut

Lessons Learned

Forty years into our unique lifelong experiment, we believe that Dmitry Belyaev would be pleased with its progress. By intense selective breeding, we have compressed into a few decades an ancient process that originally unfolded over thousands of years. Before our eyes, "the Beast" has turned into "Beauty," as the aggressive behavior of our herd's wild progenitors entirely disappeared. We have watched new morphological traits emerge, a process previously known only from archaeological evidence. Now we know that these changes can burst into a population early in domestication, triggered by the stresses of captivity, and that many of them result from changes in the timing of developmental processes. In some cases the changes in timing, such as earlier sexual maturity or retarded growth of somatic characters, resemble pedomorphosis.

Figure 8. Foxes in the domesticated populationClick to Enlarge Image Some long-standing puzzles remain. We believed at the start that foxes could be made to reproduce twice a year and all year round, like dogs. We would like to understand why this has turned out not to be quite so. We are also curious about how the vocal repertoire of foxes changes under domestication. Some of the calls of our adult foxes resemble those of dogs and, like those of dogs, appear to be holdovers from puppyhood, but only further study will reveal the details.

The biggest unanswered question is just how much further our selective-breeding experiment can go. The domestic fox is not a domestic dog, but we believe that it has the genetic potential to become more and more doglike. We can continue to increase that potential through further breeding, but the foxes will realize it fully only through close contact with human beings. Over the years, other investigators and I have raised several fox pups in domestic conditions, either in the laboratory or at home as pets. They have shown themselves to be good-tempered creatures, as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings—mutual bonds, as those of us who work with them know. If our experiment should continue, and if fox pups could be raised and trained the way dog puppies are now, there is no telling what sort of animal they might one day become.

Figure 9. Forty years into the experimentClick to Enlarge Image Whether that will happen remains to be seen. For the first time in 40 years, the future of our domestication experiment is in doubt, jeopardized by the continuing crisis of the Russian economy. In 1996 the population of our breeding herd stood at 700. Last year, with no funds to feed the foxes or to pay the salaries of our staff, we had to cut the number to 100. Earlier we were able to cover most of our expenses by selling the pelts of the foxes culled from the breeding herd. Now that source of revenue has all but dried up, leaving us increasingly dependent on outside funding at a time when shrinking budgets and changes in the grant-awarding system in Russia are making long-term experiments such as ours harder and harder to sustain. Like many other enterprises in our country, we are becoming more entrepreneurial. Recently we have sold some of our foxes to Scandinavian fur breeders, who have been pressured by animal-rights groups to develop animals that do not suffer stress in captivity. We also plan to market pups as house pets, a commercial venture that should lead to some interesting, if informal, experiments in its own right. Many avenues of both applied and basic research remain for us to pursue, provided we save our unique fox population.

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