Foxes May Be the Next Domestic Animal

July 21, 2020 at 7:30 am 1 comment

Cats and dogs evolved thousands of years ago, with other animals, such as livestock, following suit. Interestingly, there appears to be another type of domestication underway: the domestication of the fox. Experiments have shown it is possible and now foxes are becoming more domestic in cities.

silver fox

The Experiments

In 1959, Russian scientists sought out to prove something: that you can domesticate an animal in a relatively short time via selective breeding. Selective breeding is when you breed animals for a specific trait and only breed those that show the trait. This is how we ended up with so many dog breeds—have you ever wondered how a wolf became a pug? Selective breeding is still used today, for producing everything from disease-resistant crops to countless types of chickens.

The 1960s fox experiments were the brainchild of Dmitry K. Belyaev, a famous zoologist. Led by Dmitry, the research team selectively bred the friendliest foxes together, emulating early dog domestication (in which the most sociable wolves stuck near human camps and bred with each other). As this went on for years (and the experiment still ongoing!), something interesting began to happen. The foxes began barking like dogs. Their snouts got shorter. They developed floppy ears and curled wagging tails. Their coloration changed. And, of course, they became friendly towards humans. The foxes had, for all intents and purposes, been domesticated.

There is another side to the experiment. To show the power of selective breeding, the scientists also bred the more unfriendly foxes to each other. Over time, the foxes’ temperaments changed drastically. They became hyper aggressive, attacking the cages and attempting to bite anyone that set foot near them. This shows the other side of selective breeding; just as you can breed for friendliness, you can also breed for antisocial traits.

London

Something interesting is happening in London. The foxes are showing early signs of domestication. In a recent experiment, researchers at the National Museums Scotland compared country fox skulls to city fox skulls. Not necessarily expecting a huge difference, scientists were intrigued to learn that the city fox skulls were anatomically different from the country fox skulls.

The city skulls featured smaller snouts, much like the foxes in the Russian experiment, and they had smaller braincases. In other words, the city foxes had smaller brains—something that also happened to the dog upon domestication. Researchers believe this is due to the foxes’ food sources. Country foxes need their brains to hunt in the wild, but city foxes mostly scavenge. Scavenging takes less brain power than stalking and taking down prey. The smaller snouts can also be explained in a similar way—a long snout is necessary for agility when hunting but becomes a burden when rooting around in the trash. The city foxes are better off with small muzzles. Since these are also general domestication traits, it’s also possible that the city foxes are becoming accustomed and perhaps even friendly towards the general population.

It’s unlikely we’ll see domesticated pet foxes any time soon—natural domestication takes at least thousands of years and even the tamest experimental foxes aren’t exactly pet material. However, the story of the foxes provides interesting insights into animal domestication.

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Photo: zoofanatic (cc)

Sources: BioMed Central, The Royal Society

Entry filed under: Animals. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Charyl Upton  |  July 21, 2020 at 8:45 am

    My grand daughter will be very interested in this post. Loved it!!,

    Reply

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