The relationship between men and dogs dates back to prehistoric times, with the earliest instances of dog domestication taking place around 16,000 years ago. When it comes to foxes, however, humans don’t usually enjoy the same loving bond as they do with dogs. Over the last 50 years or so, a dynamic duo from Russia has successfully repeated the process of dog domestication, but with foxes.
Meet Dmitry Belyaev, a late Russian geneticist who started a special breeding program back in the 1950s along with his intern Lyudmila Trut. The goal of the initiative was to replicate the process that led to the taming of dogs more than 15,000 years ago, using foxes. Despite evolving from a common ancestor, the latter is known to resist domestication, often turning into rowdy and sometimes dangerous pets.
For their experiment, Belyaev and his intern roamed the country’s vast wilderness in search of foxes that showed greater tolerance of human presence than their cousins. These animals were then brought to the researchers’ lab in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where they were mated. The resulting offspring were sorted again depending upon their behavior towards humans, and then made to undergo further experimentation.
Within a span of fifty years, the scientists were able to arrive at the point, where the foxes had completely lost their intrinsic wildness as well as mistrust of humans. As pointed out by the duo, the fourth generation of these mammals exhibited unmistakable similarities with domesticated dogs, including the need to seek human comfort, the habit of tail wagging and also licking people out of affection.
Upon further examination, the team realized that the changes were not only behavioral, but were actually accompanied by concrete physical changes. For instance, the legs and snouts of the foxes appeared shorter, while their ears drooped and their heads became wider. One reason for the changes in their attitude towards humans was the increased activity of adrenal glands that in turn produced higher amounts of serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to suppress aggressive behavior.
Although Belyaev died in 1985, the program is still ongoing, thanks to the efforts of Trut and the current team. Many of the foxes being bred today are sold to people as pets, in order to keep the research alive.