Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Friendly fox genomes help us understand the genetics of behavior

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

Sit! Stay! —

A famous experiment combined with genetic data is a potent source of new clues.


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Russian domesticated foxes

Kingston Photography for the JAB Canid Education and Conservation Center

Since 1959, a unique breeding experiment has been underway in southwestern Siberia. Its founder, Dmitry Belyaev, was intrigued by the characteristics of domestication, and he observed that foxes varied in their responses to humans—some fearful, some aggressive, and a few displaying “a quiet exploratory reaction without fear or aggression.” What would happen, he wondered, if you bred just the most chilled-out foxes?

Within a few generations of doing just this, remarkable transformations were underway. The foxes were calmer and friendlier when approached—and also more baby-faced, with floppy ears, patchy coloring, and curlier tails. This group of tame foxes, along with a second group bred for their aggression, have been transformational in our understanding of domestication.

And now, genetics have entered the mix. An international team of researchers have published an exploration of the genomes of the tame, aggressive, and wild foxes, looking for clues that could illuminate the link between genes and domestication. The results point to where in the genome the most interesting differences show up, and they may help to identify genes that could be illuminating to study in more detail.

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Tame, but not trained

The foxes that were used to start the experiment weren’t wild foxes—they were part of a population of that had been bred for more than 80 years for their fur. Still, they weren’t enthusiastic about humans; only a few responded calmly when they were approached, and even the calmest were still inclined to bite when they were handled.

The foxes were observed soon after they were born to find those that were friendliest to humans. After continuous observation for months, only the most sociable were selected for the next generation, with the researchers taking care to avoid inbreeding. The foxes weren’t raised as pets; they had minimal contact with humans, living out their lives in cages. So, it’s fair to assume that their behavior couldn’t be attributed to learning, but rather to underlying genetic differences.

A few generations later, this group experienced remarkably dog-like changes: “At the sight of even a strange person, they try actively to attract attention with their whining, wagging of tails, and specific movements,” Belyaev noted 20 years into the experiment. Even their voices changed to more of a dog-lik

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