Domesticated foxes, bless their hearts


Preface: This is the 2nd in a series of educational blog posts, i.e. things I think you should know (the first is here:

As a graduate student I attend a lot of enriching, topical (free food) events. I’ll eventually write a blog post about the multifarious ways to enrich oneself (feed oneself for free) as a Harvard graduate student. One of my favorites is Astrobiology club. Every other Tuesday this interdisciplinary group meets to discuss articles related to the origins of life on Earth and detection of life on other planets (and eat fancy sandwiches).

A downside of Astrobiology club is that we begin the meetings with a geeky icebreaker. I don’t want to break the ice with these people! I just want to eat my mango chicken curry sandwich in the corner while other people debate intergalactic microbes!

Once we had to go around the room and say our name, our department, and our favorite experiment.

Fragile looking first year grad student who will be crushed by academia: “Hiiiii. I’m Bethany from Evolutionary Biology and I guess my favorite experiment is Mendel’s peas.”

Bulgarian man who speaks in a piercingly earnest, serial killer way: “My name is Thaddeus Vorcheck. I am postdoc in Department of Bioengineering. My favorite experiment is experiment I do now on biomineralization of the sheep teeth.”

Your standard crazy-haired, sweet-hearted Astrophysicist: “Hi, I’m Gregory, Department of Astrophysics. My favorite experiment is [scientist I don’t know]’s [words I don’t understand that sound physics-y]”

Me: “Hi. I’m Annelia from Anthropology. My favorite experiment is the domesticated foxes.”

There were some nods of agreement and some vacant looks.  Can you believe that some people in the room didn’t know about domesticated foxes!?  They were familiar with [scientist I don’t know]’s [words I don’t understand that sound physics-y], but not domesticated foxes!

Wait—do you know about domesticated foxes?  If not, I implore you to read on.  These foxes are my absolute favorite domesticated species AND my absolute favorite experiment!

Domesticated foxes have floppy ears and wagging tails. They chase balls and bound into your arms. They are loving, playful—everything you want from a dog, but with a fox physique.

See this YouTube video: . Bless their hearts!


Caption: a precious pictures I stole from the web without citing.

The domesticated fox experiment began in Soviet Russia at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. You might expect a genetics institute in 1960s Siberia to be the setting of depraved, diabolical research. As far as I know, it was not.* Rather it was the site of a brilliant experiment on fox domestication, which has revolutionized our understanding of domestication in general, and specifically how dogs evolved from wolves.

The institute director, the late Dmitri Belyaev, designed the following experiment: In each generation he selected the tamest pups** for breeding (but included enough nonrelated individuals to prevent the population from becoming deleteriously inbred). By the sixth generation some foxes—the “domesticated elite”—exhibited extremely social behavior and fondness for humans. They whimpered for attention, wagged their tails, and licked the scientists; they displayed the behaviors of Man’s Best Friend.

But there’s more. The lineage also began exhibiting physical changes, including juvenile skull shapes, floppy ears, and spotted coats. Again, these are differences you see between wolves and dogs, and in fact, between most domesticated animals and their wild ancestors.

How did selecting for tameness lead to a suite of behavioral and physical changes that are observed consistently across domesticated animals?

These changes are all affected by genes involved in the production of hormones and neurochemicals related to stress and aggression. The domesticated elite expressed these genes—so produced these body signals—at different times and quantities during development, compared to wild foxes. As a result, the foxes’ development was altered so that juvenile traits were retained into adulthood.  The same genes that ultimately led to a tamer fox also led to a cuter, spotted, floppy-eared fox.

Domesticated foxes can be purchased for about ~$1000 and are legal in some US States. I have every intention of buying one when I grow up. I will never be a crazy cat lady, but crazy fox lady—this I would do.


Caption: As a crazy fox lady, I could be happy as these people, whose pictures I also stole from the web without citing.

*Though they have done a reverse domestication experiment by breeding the most aggressive foxes in each litter. The resulting foxes seethe evil.

**In researching this topic I learned that baby foxes are called kits, cubs, or pups. A female fox is a vixen. A male fox is a Reynard or tod and a group of foxes is a skulk or leash. If you want more useless information, here’s a website that lists these names for many animals:

A congress of baboons! A clutter of cats! A romp of otters! My god, I’m bored today.

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