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Domesticated Foxes

Zoologist Dmitriy Belyayev started the experiment on selective breeding with wild red foxes in 1959 at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk. This experiment was designed to replicate the process that had produced dogs from wolves – an open example of the power of selective breeding described by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species.

The experiment started with approximately 130 wild red foxes from different regions of the Soviet Union. Only the most tame foxes were allowed to breed and just several years later the behavior of these foxes had very apparent changes: they became tamer and more dog-like in behavior. Selecting the less aggressive, more tame foxes, generation to generation, the experiment had great results.

Professor Ludmila Nikolaevna Trut is a scientist at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics that continues Belyayev’s studies:

We started the experiment as long ago as 1959-1960 by the initiative of the Institute’s first director Dmitriy Konstantinovich Belyayev. We wanted to understand the evolution process that an animal goes through when he starts to live among human beings. Why is the dog so different from it’s ancestor – the gray wolf? Our experiment was focused on the theory that this selective breeding was based on the species behavior. Human beings selected the more tolerant, tame, more calm wolves, generation to generation. This selection by behavior lead to the dog as diverse as we see it today. To confirm this theory, we started to examine this process of domesticating an animal on the red fox.

Some of the effects in result fo domestication were: the foxes would have a more round face, a black nose, the eyes would change color to blue, the ears would start to hang, the tail would be held up. Also, the color of the foxes would change to red with black paws, platinum with a white chest, silver-black, as well as white with black marks.

Professor Belyayev predicted that the experimented foxes would change in exterior as well. The tenth generation of foxes had foxes with loose ears, shortened more dog-like noses, eyes without the predator look, with tails looking up. The foxes obtained marks on their fur of different kinds that is typical for dogs, cats and even sheep. Animals do not have such marks in the wild. The noises that these foxes would make also had great changes. Their language is a whole different scientific topic that we are yet to learn.

Photo: Dmitriy Konstantinovich Belyayev with his pets. 1984. (in courtesy of RIA Novosti)