The Silver Fox Domestication Experiment


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

But for Belyaev and Trut, the science was too important to leave undone. Although working in Siberia helped them fly under Lysenko’s radar, it was still a dangerous business. The very year they began, Nikita Khrushchev, under Lysenko’s spell, visited the institute where the experiment was housed and came within a hair’s breadth of shutting it down.

But on the experiment went. Since its inception in 1959, Trut, Belyaev, and their team of Russian biologists have raised tens of thousands of foxes, breeding approximately the sweetest and calmest 10 percent of each generation. (Belyaev died in 1985, but Trut, who recently turned 85 years old, continues to lead the experiment to this day.) Within six years — six fox generations — they had gone from wild animals that fled from humans, attacked when cornered, or both to foxes that begged for belly rubs, wagged their tails when Trut approached, and whined when she left. A few years later, there were foxes with floppy ears, curly tails, and mutt-like fur. Next came rounded, short, dog-like snouts. The foxes became more carefree with each generation, the result of more serotonin, a “happiness chemical,” coursing through their systems. They also had markedly reduced stress hormone levels than their cousins in the wild. They even followed the gaze of people — which is almost unheard for animals, except dogs.

As Belyaev predicted, all these changes are the result of selection for friendliness and friendliness alone.

And a paper they published on the genetic analysis…

Red fox genome assembly identifies genomic regions associated with tame and aggressive behaviours

Strains of red fox ( Vulpes vulpes ) with markedly different behavioural phenotypes have been developed in the famous long-term selective breeding programme known as the Russian farm-fox experiment. Here we sequenced and assembled the red fox genome and re-sequenced a subset of foxes from the tame, aggressive and conventional farm-bred populations to identify genomic regions associated with the response to selection for behaviour. Analysis of the re-sequenced genomes identified 103 regions with either significantly decreased heterozygosity in one of the three populations or increased divergence between the populations. A strong positional candidate gene for tame behaviour was highlighted: SorCS1 , which encodes the main trafficking protein for AMPA glutamate receptors and neurexins and suggests a role for synaptic plasticity in fox domestication. Other regions identified as likely to have been under selection in foxes include genes implicated in human neurological disorders, mouse behaviour and dog domestication. The fox represents a powerful model for the genetic analysis of affiliative and aggressive behaviours that can benefit genetic studies of behaviour in dogs and other mammals, including humans.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

This is a haunting thought:

Belyaev would have been proud of how his experiment stood the test of time. And Trut, in her own understated way, is proud as well. When, as a newly minted graduate from Moscow State University in 1959, she paired up with Belyaev to test his audacious ideas, she took to heart what the fox told the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s tale: “You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.” For Trut, this meant that if the experiment worked — if they actually tamed the foxes — she could never leave them.

(Robert Byers) #3

I remember this experiment. Yet question its conclusionds. It didn’t select for friendliness.
more likely it made them weaker. the floppy years and general domesticated looks of creatures is very common . Its really a atrophy of traits. not a selection on mutations or a selection on anything.
There is no reason to think that.
Of coarse the creatures are never set free and make new populations.
We don’t know if its as sticky as with our domesticated dogs.
likewise it can show merely memory operation. Each generation would just pick up from its parents a gentle nature.
Actually its common in the wil that foxes never had fear or hostility to people. The famous Steller island story being case in point. In fact evolutionists use this to “prove” creatures only learn hostility/fear to man. its not natural.
So in these experiments its likely they just, in a sluggish way by generations, train new baby foxes into being friendly.
yet its not breeding on genes. just on attitudes from the parents or any fox around them.
there is problems here as with everything from the old soviet union .