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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 1999 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

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

Physical Changes

Physically, the foxes differ markedly from their wild relatives. Some of the differences have obvious links to the changes in their social behavior. In dogs, for example, it is well known that the first weeks of life are crucial for forming primary social bonds with human beings. The "window" of bonding opens when a puppy becomes able to sense and explore its surroundings, and it closes when the pup starts to fear unknown stimuli. According to our studies, nondomesticated fox pups start responding to auditory stimuli on day 16 after birth, and their eyes are completely open by day 18 or 19. On average, our domesticated fox pups respond to sounds two days earlier and open their eyes a day earlier than their nondomesticated cousins. Nondomesticated foxes first show the fear response at 6 weeks of age; domesticated ones show it after 9 weeks or even later. (Dogs show it at 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the breed.) As a result, domesticated pups have more time to become incorporated into a human social environment.

Figure 4. In typical silver foxesClick to Enlarge Image Moreover, we have found that the delayed development of the fear response is linked to changes in plasma levels of corticosteroids, hormones concerned with an animal's adaptation to stress. In foxes, the level of corticosteroids rises sharply between the ages of 2 to 4 months and reach adult levels by the age of 8 months. One of our studies found that the more advanced an animal's selection for domesticated behavior was, the later it showed the fear response and the later came the surge in its plasma corticosteroids. Thus, selection for domestication gives rises to changes in the timing of the postnatal development of certain physiological and hormonal mechanisms underlying the formation of social behavior.

Other physical changes mirror those in dogs and other domesticated animals. In our foxes, novel traits began to appear in the eighth to tenth selected generations. The first ones we noted were changes in the foxes' coat color, chiefly a loss of pigment in certain areas of the body, leading in some cases to a star-shaped pattern on the face similar to that seen in some breeds of dog. Next came traits such as floppy ears and rolled tails similar to those in some breeds of dog. After 15 to 20 generations we noted the appearance of foxes with shorter tails and legs and with underbites or overbites. The novel traits are still fairly rare. Most of them show up in no more than a few animals per 100 to a few per 10,000. Some have been seen in commercial populations, though at levels at least a magnitude lower than we recorded in our domesticated foxes.





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