The Null Device

The Novosibirsk Domestic Fox Experiment

A New York Times article from 10 years ago reveals that, over 40 years, Soviet scientists managed to create a domesticated variety of silver fox through selective breeding:
In a long-term experiment at a Siberian fur farm, geneticists have created this new version of Vulpes vulpes, the silver fox, by allowing only the friendliest animals from each generation to breed. 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.
The original purpose of the breeding was to create a friendly breed less likely than wild animals to fight when put to death. But in time, geneticists saw that far-reaching changes they observed in the foxes' physical and neurological makeup merited scientific study. The scientists apparently underwent some changes, too. Close bonds developed between the tame foxes and their human wardens, and the staff at the fur farm is trying to find ways of saving the animals from slaughter.
("Friendly" there seems like a euphemism; "gullible" or "stupid" might be more appropriate.)

The results of the experiment were domestic foxes ''as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings'', which also developed a variety of physical differences from their wild ancestors:

The normal pattern of coat color that evolved in wild foxes as camouflage changed markedly in the genetically tamed fox population, with irregular piebald splotches of white fur appearing in some animals. The tame foxes sometimes developed floppy ears in place of the straight ones of wild foxes. The domesticated foxes generally had shorter legs and tails than ordinary foxes, and often had curly tails instead of straight, horizontal tails.
Moreover, the faces of adult tame foxes came to look more juvenile than the faces of wild adults, and many of the experimental animals developed dog-like features, Dr. Trut reported. Although no selective pressures relating to size or shape were used in breeding the animals, the skulls of tamable foxes tended to be narrower with shorter snouts than those of wild foxes.
Even more interesting were neurochemical differences: the tame foxes' adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline to prepare animals for fight or flight, had declined in hormone-producing ability with each generation, while after only 12 generations, their brains contained significantly higher levels of serotonin.

Unfortunately, it appears that the project ran out of money some time in the late 1990s, and most of the foxes were destroyed or sold off to fur breeders in Scandinavia. The institute had plans to sell pups as house pets, though it is not clear whether anything came of those.

(Via a comment on this MeFi thread about the history of domestic cats.)

There are 5 comments on "The Novosibirsk Domestic Fox Experiment":

Posted by: Greg Sat May 30 09:15:16 2009

That's interesting considering Jared Diamond's argument that only very few species were domesticatable and most of them lived in Eurasia. Interesting too how fast noticable evolution happened - 12 generations. I wonder if that means humans might be adapted to post-agricultural heirarchical societies? It's often argued that there hasn't been time for evolution, so we are piloting 'cave man' bodies and brains around novel environments. There would have been a few thousand generations in some populations since they adopted this lifestyle. Maybe some of us are born adapted to farm labour, soldiering, clerical work or commerce after all.

Posted by: ianw Mon Jun 1 05:26:12 2009

reminds me of the infamous cats-on-cooked-food experiment..

Posted by: Bubble Sun Mar 13 11:56:59 2011

Have you read the new National Geographic (March 2011)? There's an article about that fox experiment. They're still going, they survived the financial troubles they had in the late 90s. :)

Posted by: Tyler Cole Sat Apr 23 02:06:30 2011

I actually visited the farm and wrote about it (+ video):

Posted by: LunaKay Thu May 10 23:20:12 2012

Unfortunately, some states do not support having these domestic foxes as pets. In the article Bubble mentioned, some fox are sold for their fur to keep funding the project. If we can make them legal in all 50 U.S. states, we can help to save these. Please follow this url to sign a petition for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services!: