There Is One Tame Population Of Foxes On Earth, All Thanks To A Russian Geneticist

Brilliance | Dec. 19, 2017

There are cat people, then there are dog people. While those two sides may never totally see eye-to-eye, there might just a little space for them to meet in the middle. One word: foxes. Thanks to a 1950s project by a Russian geneticist, one population of tame foxes exists. If you've ever wondered about owning a fox as a pet, listen up.

Operation Adorable

In 1948, the Soviet Union officially declared genetics a pseudoscience (it's not), swiftly firing all geneticists from their jobs. Long story short, the concept of genetics (Gregor Mendel-style) didn't jibe well with the tenets of communism. A geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev was booted from his job as a result, but didn't let that end his research. He sought out to trace the evolutionary pathway of domesticated animals by attempting to domesticate some foxes, specifically silver-black foxes. But, as far as the government knew, Belyaev was just breeding foxes to make better fur coats.

Belyaev and his intern Lyudmila Trut travelled around to different fox farms (where the lil' guys were being bred for their fur) taking the foxes that exhibited one key trait: friendliness. Around 10 percent of the foxes in these cages had a weak "wild-response," meaning they were docile around people. The first generation of the friendly foxes for the team's domestication experiment was made up of 100 vixens and 30 males. When the first generation had cubs, the team carried out the most adorable job of all time by hand-feeding and petting the little cuties for a strictly measured period of time. The friendliest of the foxes when on to breed the next generation, and so on and so on.

What The Fox Say?

By the fourth generation of friendly fox litters, the researchers started noticing dramatic changes. Foxes were wagging their tails, eagerly looking for human contact, and licking the scientists like puppies. As the generations of foxes got friendlier and more dog-like, strangely, they were changing physically too. Not only did they start making different vocalizations than wild foxes, these foxes developed a more delicate appearance, with floppier ears, widened heads, shorter legs, and curlier tails. In a word, these foxes were just getting...cuter. Want to see for yourself? Check out the video below.

The team had successfully created a genetically-distinct population of foxes, which remains the only one in the world. This feat is mind-blowing for a few reasons: First, it happened so quickly. With intense selective breeding, Belyaev and Trut compressed into a few decades an ancient process that occurs over thousands of years. Second, though selection was only based on tamability, the foxes changed physiologically, anatomically, and behaviorally. Strangely, this could give us insight into how humans evolved. Because we're far less aggressive and violent than chimps, our closest relatives, we may have moved up in the world based on our friendliness. If this was the case, our intelligence was just a nice byproduct, not the needle-mover in our success as a species.

But back to the foxes for a second. Where are they now? The friendly fox operation is still up and running today, headed by Trut. By the late 1990s, the team began selling the fuzzy cutie as house pets. A Florida-based company called the Lester Kalmanson Agency Inc imports foxes. To get a pet fox of your own, contact them, and get ready to shell out $8,900 for your dream pet.

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