Selective breeding turns foxes into pets

Want to make a dog? Well, wolves evolved into dogs at least once. But it turns out you can also create what is essentially a dog by starting with wild foxes. Select the ones that don’t seem to want to tear off the seeker’s face and mate them to produce the next generation.

“Within five or six generations of this selection of the quietest animals, they had animals that wagged their tails when Lyudmila approached them, licked her hand when she put it in the cage.”

University of Louisville evolutionary biologist Lee Dugatkin talks about Lyudmila Trut of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia.

“And it’s strictly the result of genetic selection. These animals are not trained to do that, they don’t learn, there is no mechanism in the experiment for them to learn anything, what you see is the result of genetic selection.

Trut began this fox domestication experiment in the late 1950s at the age of 25 and still leads it today. She and her team are approaching their 60th generation of foxes. But they saw profound changes early on.

“In five generations of selection, they had these animals that were extraordinarily docile towards humans. And then slowly but surely so many other traits that we see in pets also started showing up in these tamed foxes…they tend to have floppy ears and curled tails and they tend to have characteristic facials much more rejuvenated. ”

Trut and Dugatkin are the co-authors of the new book How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) on this long-term study. They also wrote an article about the fox experiment in the May issue of American Scientist. An in-depth discussion with Dugatkin is available as a Science Talk podcast on our website.

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

Jeanetta J. Stewart