Cultures across the globe consider foxes to be incorrigibly wild. In both ancient fables and big-budget movies, these fluffy mammals are depicted as being clever, intelligent and untamable. Untamable, that is, until an unparalleled biology experiment started in Siberia almost 60 years ago.
The tale begins with Dmitry Belyaev, who was studying genetics during a very dangerous time in the Soviet Union. State officials campaigned actively against genetic research with a tactic known as Lysenkoism, under which hundreds of biologists were either thrown in prison or executed. After Joseph Stalin’s death, the government’s grasp on genetic research loosened, and though it was still controversial, Belyaev was finally able to test a hypothesis he had been secretly pursuing.
As director of the newly-minted Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Belyaev was curious as to how dogs first became domesticated. He decided that to fully understand the process, he must attempt to replicate the early days of domestication. He picked foxes for the experiment because of their close family ties with dogs (both are canids). His research team visited fur farms across the Soviet Union and purchased the tamest foxes on hand. They figured using the most docile of the wild foxes for their breeding program would hasten the pace of domestication, relative to the thousands of years it took to breed dogs.
To prove the foxes’ friendly demeanor was the result of genetic selection, Belyaev’s team began to breed foxes that showed opposite traits of the tame pups. Instead of being outgoing and excited by encountering people, these foxes were defensive and aggressive. This result showed certain aspects of the fox’s behavior could be tied to genetics and spotted during breeding.
- What are the characteristics of foxes in oth ancient fables and big-budget movies?
- Who studied genetis during a very dangerous time in the Soviet Union?
- What happened during the tactic imposed by the state officiales uring a very dangerous time in the Soviet Union?
- Why did Belyaev picked foxes for the experiment on how dogs first became domesticated?
- What did Belyaev do to prove the foxes' friendly demeanor was the result of genetic selction?
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