Animal of the Issue: Russian Fox Experiment

BY BRIANA MAGISTRO
SC Staff Writer

Many pets are considered to be odd, but have you ever heard of a pet fox?

As most people know, modern dogs are descendants of domesticated wolves. Starting in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago, wolves were being domesticated to be “man’s best friend.”

At the time, people wanted dogs to help them with everyday work and for protection. The question is how did they get the dog’s husky, ferocious cousin to become a house pet?

The most popular assumption made about the question above is selective breeding. It is hypothesized that ancient humans captured and bred wolves based on their general tameness and affinity for humans. Over thousands of years of this selective breeding, humans can now own various types of dogs. How can this assumption be proven?

The Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia has been conducting experiments on fox tameness. For the last fifty years, Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev has led the experiment. He started out with just over 100 silver foxes, and has since then worked with thousands of foxes. A silver fox is considered the same species as the red fox, but it expresses a different coat color. The silver fox is silver whereas the red fox is red, but it still has black-tipped limbs and ears.

Belyaev only allowed the tamest foxes to mate in order to test whether tameness is connected to inherent genes. Belyaev and his colleagues tested a fox’s tameness by approaching the fox with food. They would document how fearful or friendly the fox acted, and whether it would come toward the humans.

After about forty generations, the tamest foxes now wag their tails and whimper for attention when a human comes close.

Over the years, the fox coat color combinations have varied greatly. Foxes now come in a marbled and platinum coat. Marbled foxes are entirely white with small patches of gray or red, while platinum foxes depict coat coloration similar to that of border collies.

Some foxes’ ears have even drooped like a retriever, and their tails have curled up, like a Shiba.

These foxes now appear to crave attention from humans.

On a genetic level, these foxes do not express the gene for adrenaline as much as their wild type. The inheritance for a tamer fox has propagated in a direct manner. Connected to the gene for adrenaline production are the genes for coat color, coat type, and skull shape, among others.

This experiment has not only contributed to human’s understanding of the modern dog’s origins, but has reinforced information about taming other species. Cows have been tamed in a similar manner, as well as many other farm animals. If you look at the “wild type” of a cow, it looks and acts nothing like the heifer in the petting zoo.

Today, you can own a tamed fox. Sites like domesticfox.com will go to Russia and handpick a tame fox straight from the fox farm. When ordering a fox on their website, you can select the gender and even what color you prefer. The site also provides information on fox care.

Russian foxes cost about $8,000, but they arrive in America with appropriate vaccinations and good health. Will you be getting a fox in the future?

Email Briana at:
bmagistro@live.esu.edu

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