Transforming Foxes in to Dogs: Fox Domestication

Everyone knows what a fox looks like, right? They’ve got luxurious red fur with full, bushy tails that trail along the ground, and big, tall ears that stand upright.

Red Fox

Common Red Fox

But what if I told you there are foxes that are white with tiny black spots that have short tails that curl over their backs and small, floppy ears? What if I told you that these foxes bark and come when called? What if I told you that foxes are being transformed into dogs?

Domesticated Fox

Domesticated Fox

Now, everyone knows what a dog is. Most of us have dogs at home and love their loyal personalities and cute appearances. Foxes, however, are not as well known or loved, mostly because they are viewed as wild and dangerous, but now, they have been domesticated.

Harboring a love of foxes for the past 10 years, I have been researching and studying my favorite animals. Coming across fox domestication, I began to study further, discovering stunning information.

Dmitri Konstantinovich Belyaev (1917-1985), Soviet zoologist, member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and director of the Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics from 1959 to 1985 with his selectively bred foxes in Novosibirsk, Russia, 1984. Balyaev is famous for the breeding experiments he carried out in the 1950s with silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes). The selective breeding that produced tame foxes destabilized the gene pool, leading to changes in fur color.

Through scientific experiments over the past 50 years in Novosibirsk, Russia by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, foxes have been domesticated, but through the process, have become increasingly dog-like.

Fox domestication is not well known, but by over-viewing the history of the scientific experiments and the dog-like qualities the foxes are acquiring, one can better understand the relevance today.

Of course, to understand any topic, one must start from the beginning and overview the history of how it has all progressed.

Over the last 50 years, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics have been experimenting on silver foxes, a form of the common red fox, to achieve a domesticated fox.

Asked by fur farmers to create a fox that was easier to take care of and that would not react aggressively towards humans, director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, geneticist Dr. Dmitry K. Belyaev created a fox-farm to begin scientific experiments.

“He began with 30 male foxes and 100 vixens, or female foxes, most of them from a commercial fur farm in Estonia.” Selecting the foxes for tamability, Dr. Belyaev would only allow foxes that did not bite or cower when being handled to breed. “Selection is strict; in recent years, typically not more than 4 or 5 percent of male offspring and about 20 percent of female offspring have been allowed to breed” (Trut, 1999).

Class III foxes would flee from experimenters and bite when stroked or handled while Class II foxes would let themselves be petted and handled, but not show emotionally friendly responses to experimenters. Class I foxes were the most tame, acting friendly towards experimenters and wagging their tails and whining to be handled. Eventually, the foxes became so domesticated that a new class was created, Class IE or the “domesticated elite” which contained foxes that were eager to establish human contact and would whimper to attract attention. These foxes would sniff and lick experimenters, much like dogs (Acland 2008).

Class I Class II Class III
Most Domesticated Somewhat Domesticated Least Domesticated
Friendly towards experimenters

Wag their tail

Whining

Let themselves be petted and handled

Showed no emotionally friendly response to experimenters

Flee from experimenters

Bite when stroked or handled

Even these foxes are tamer than the calmest farm-bred foxes

This behavior surprised the experimenters because they were not expecting dog-like qualities within the foxes. When selecting for tameness, however, the scientists were unknowingly transforming the foxes into dogs.

“Having selected only the most ”tamable” of some 45,000 foxes over 35 generations, the scientists have compressed into a mere 40 years an evolutionary process that took thousands of years to transform ancestral wolves into domestic dogs” (Browne 1999). Through the process of domestication, foxes can acquire dog-like attributes, not only physically, but mentally, as well.

While wild foxes are well-known for their luxurious black and red coats, domestic foxes have been found to sport white and silver fur and floppy ears. All species of domesticated animals have been recorded to have drooped ears while no wild animals, except for elephants, have them because they need to remain alert and at attention. (Trut, 1999). Instead of trailing along the ground, a domestic fox’s tail tends to be extremely short, or curl over the canine’s back, much like a husky.

The silver fox domestication project
Changes in the foxes’ coat color were the first novel traits noted, appearing in the eighth to tenth selected generations. In a fox homozygous for the Star gene, large areas of depigmentation similar to those in some dog breeds are seen.

Lyudmila Trut with a domesticated fox

Dr. Lyudmila Trut with a domesticated fox

Whining for attention, a domestic fox will bark and wag its tail when a human approaches, and will lick when given a hand. If named, a domestic fox will respond to the name and come when called. A domestic fox can also develop a strong, loyal bond with a human companion, much like man’s best friend. The reproductive cycle of a fox also changes. The differences between males and females even become less prominent.

With the revelation of these dog-like qualities, the Institute of Cytology and Genetics has become fascinated and has engaged in more scientific experiments at the fox farm. Today, the experiments continue.

With a new breed of fox, the institute continues to study, conduct research, and even profit from the domestication of the vulpes vulpes, or red fox.

Continuing to breed and study the domesticated fox, the fox-farm in Siberia, Russia continues to reveal new information about foxes, genes, and the domestication of animals. “Today elite foxes make up 70 to 80 percent of our experimentally selected population” (Trut 1999).

Working directly with the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, The Domesticated Fox, a private company in the United States of America has been distributing tame foxes from the fox-farm, committed to introducing the animals as pets and establishing non-consumptive relationships between foxes and people.

With tame foxes becoming more common as pets, the domestication of foxes is becoming increasingly more well-known.

Through scientific experiments over the past 50 years in Novosibirsk, Russia by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, foxes have been domesticated, but through the process have become increasingly dog-like. With white coats speckled with black spots, like dalmations, floppy ears, like datschunds, and curled tails, like huskies, domesticated foxes begin to lose their wild appearance and look more like the common pet. But tame foxes act like dogs as well, bonding with their owners, responding to their names, and even barking and whining for attention.

Because of the continuing process of fox domestication, foxes are beginning to transform into dogs. Perhaps someday, a pet fox will be just as common as the family dog.

References

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