Are house foxes similar to dogs

Documentation on the development from wild to domestic foxes in a few generations (pdf)

Roland Heynkes, June 25, 2017

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In this hypertext I summarize what I said about fox domestication in the television documentaries: "Hunting buddies - How dogs came to humans", "Sit, down, by foot - How humans tame animals" and: "Der enchanted fox "from the series:" World of Animals ". On YouTube you can see: "Hunting Companions - How the Dog Got Man". In the ARD media library you can find the article: "The silver foxes of Novosibirsk" from the program: "Sit, take a seat, with feet - how humans tame animals" from the science series: "W as in knowledge" until September 3rd, 2020.

The Fuchs domestication experiment by Dmitrij Beljaew

When humans approach the cage of a trapped fox, the wild animal bends its ears, clamps its tail between its legs and moves to the farthest corner. If the human gets closer, the fox makes hissing defensive noises and finally attacks. The Russian biologist Dmitrij Beljaew began to work with such wild silver foxes from fur farms in 1959 in Siberia as head of the Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics in Novosibirsk. The scientist was interested in the genetic basis of the domestication of wild animals, but genetics was banned in the Soviet Union under Stalin. His research therefore officially served to increase fox fur production by breeding silver foxes that do not react stressed to the presence of humans. With the full support of the fur breeders, Belyaev was able to test his hypothesis that, as with the development from wolf to dog, domestication may also increase fertility in other animal species.

The scientist began his breeding experiment with around 100 foxes on a remote farm in southeast Siberia. Only those foxes that reacted the least with stress to being around people were allowed to reproduce. Amazingly, the first offspring of the selected breeding animals sought to be close to people from birth. Although Belyaev chose his breeding animals solely on the basis of their trustworthiness, the offspring soon differed externally from wild silver foxes. After only four generations of foxes, there were fox pups with floppy ears. Tame foxes with piebald fur, curly tails and slightly smaller stature were soon obtained, which reacted to people like dogs with whimpering and wagging their tails. Belyayev had expected this, because Charles Darwin had already observed that small limb, floppy ears and white spots appear in many breeds of domestic animals such as dogs, cows, horses, pigs, chickens and even goldfish.

Today, his doctoral student and successor, Prof. Ludmila Trut, even lets young children play with the four-month-old descendants of the once wild Siberian silver foxes. The trusting animals greet the children with happy wagging tails, nestle like cats and dogs, lick the children's hands and are patiently carried around. Tame foxes even listen to their names. They are very affectionate and seem to regard everyone as a potential friend.

The discovery of gene regulation by stress hormones

While searching for a common cause of tameness and the physical changes, Belyaev discovered that the tame foxes had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone adrenaline in their blood. But because that only explained the tameness, he developed the hypothesis that there could be dormant genes that only become active if they are not blocked by adrenaline. Today we know that adrenaline can actually epigenetically block the reading (transcription) of various genes.

mental faculties of tame foxes

The doctoral student Irina Muchametschina researches the cognitive abilities of tame foxes compared to dogs. She has already shown that domesticated foxes understand human gestures and looks just as well as dogs. The clever foxes like to play with dogs and trick them. Tame foxes behave towards humans in a similar way to happy and balanced Golden Retrievers. In contrast to the pack animal dog and more like the loner cat, tame foxes do not subordinate themselves unconditionally to humans and only do what they like. They understand what people want from them, but they only do it for material reward (food). Perhaps that is why the ancient Egyptians gave up their attempts to keep foxes as pets.

Today, however, many people find foxes so attractive as pets that the research institute in Novosibirsk can finance part of its research by selling tame foxes. For this purpose the house foxes are "socialized" by playing together with children.

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Roland Heynkes, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0