Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Domesticated Fox

So this guy decided to domesticate foxes. Dymitri Belyaev was a Russian geneticist who wanted to study the domestication process, so he just went ahead and did so, starting in 1959. In 1999, fourteen years after his death, Lyudmila Trut published an article about the experiment, which is ongoing, in American Scientist.

It's fascinating stuff, marred only (as far as I can tell) by the conditions in which the foxes are kept: "To ensure that their tameness results from genetic selection, we do not train the foxes. Most of them spend their lives in cages and are allowed only brief "time dosed" contact with human beings. Pups are caged with their mothers until they are 1 1/2 to 2 months old. Then they are caged with their litter mates but without their mothers. At three months, each pup is moved to its own cage."

The results of the selective breeding of 45,000 foxes across some fifty generations is that they've succeeded in crafting a domesticated fox. But they were selecting only for tameness, only for behavior. Nonetheless, they found that many physical features changed as well, including pigment, ear floppiness, and skull features. They note changes to reproductive cycles, infant development, and sexual maturation (the domesticated foxes reach maturity a month earlier than do their farmed and wild counterparts).

Of interest to the folklorist in me is that analogy that Trut uses to characterize the experiment: "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."

Here's a link to a video chronicling the experiment, in which you can see the silver foxes in question.

Of all the sciences that feature in science fiction, I'm most interested in evolutionary biology. I'm not well-read enough in that discipline to know what other experiments are being conducted within its laboratories and field work , but this stuff about foxes is fascinating. Why does their coloring change and their ears get floppy when selected for behavior and attitude? Why is neoteny a thing? And, above all, what are the ethical implications of this sort of work? In the video linked to above, we learn that the scientists are also breeding for aggression: one of the researchers gets bit by one and says, "This isn't a fox, it's a dragon."

Anyway, one of their findings is that aggression/tameness isn't related to the way the fox is raised; they have "cross-fostered" some of the pups, giving the offspring of an aggressive to a tame mother. The aggression wins out, not the way the mother raises the pup. Nature trumps nurture.

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