Sunday, June 15, 2014

It That a Silver Fox in Your House, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

I was listening to NPR the other day, specifically to RadioLab, one of my favorite shows. I was only barely listening to it since I was cozy on the couch with Roxie while working on client notes and updating some handouts, so I didn't realize what they were talking about right away. Then, I heard a name that was familiar to me- Dmitri Belyaev.

  Not My Picture, but this guy: Matt Knoth

You probably don't know who he was, but I do, so I'll share. He was a geneticist in Russia in the mid 1950's who studied (among other things) the Silver Fox. Now, this was actually under the guise of canine physiology because Stalin had outlawed further research into Mendelian genetics, and Dmitri's older brother had been exiled to a labor camp after it was discovered that they were still conducting these experiments. He was interested in how modern domesticated dogs, who were so diverse, had all come from a common ancestor- the undomesticated wolf. Naturally, there must be something *gasp* genetic that explained it all. He said he was working on new types of fur for coats (I don't like it any more than you do, but it happened and it's in the past so don't get mad at me for mentioning it- it's not like I OWN a fur coat) but he was really gathering all the friendliest silver foxes from fur farms for a little social experiment. He bred only the friendly foxes- that was the only selective trait that he was trying to keep. In 1964, they were four generations into this experiment and something really interesting was happening. The foxes were becoming friendly- like wagging tails and approaching people. Some would even jump into the researchers arms! Even more amazing- one was taken home for a time as a pet and it walked very well off leash (like a well trained dog) and came when called!

But wait,

There's more...

They began to change in appearance too. The traditional sought after silver-black coat began to retain white spots, their tails curled up after just a few generations and their ears began to flop over. They began to vocalize differently. They were becoming more juvenile or rather, they were staying juvenile.
It turns out that's what's so endearing to us about domestic dogs- they are juvenile in appearance and behavior. Compared to the wolf, they are clumsy and careless in many actions, not unlike an human child.


It gets better.

Like any good, curious scientists, they wanted to see what happened if they bred the aggressive foxes only to each other. Naturally, they became more aggressive with each generation, as the friendly ones became more tame with each generation. As an example a kit (baby fox), who was more aggressive than it's mother was raised by a tame mother for the sake of the experiment. This fox was still quite aggressive towards people, which points more towards nature than nurture for aggression at this level at least.

Now, Belyaev died in 1985, but his experiment has been going ever since and after 50 years, has helped us to gather some new insights about domestication in general. For one thing, we have learned that things like aggression, ear position, tail position and coat color may be linked genetically. Not only that, but they figured out in the early 2000's that the foxes were more capable and willing to interact and do problem solving with people, and read human cues easily- as easily as domesticated canine puppies. The thing is, it's taken domestic canines thousands of years to do this but the foxes, bred only for the single trait of friendliness towards people had become strikingly similar to domestic dogs in only 10 generations- on appearance and attitude.

If you want more, listen to the episode of RadioLab or read about it on National Geographic's website. They break it down really well in the RadioLab eposide, then discuss how humans may have inadvertently bred themselves in a similar way. There's even a NOVA documentary that discusses the experiment and implications for domesticated dogs.


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 I hope you have enjoyed this one, I'm going to bury my nose in a genetics book until my son wakes up from his nap.

What's your favorite dog trait? Waggy tails and floppy ears? Uncontrollable drool and fun splotchy coats?

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