Last month, National Geographic ran a (per usual) excellent article on scientific research on the domestication of foxes as pets.
It's a great article -- and you should take the time to read it in its entirety here.
And when they talk domestication...they are not talking taking a wild animal and working to tame it, they're talking full-on domestication: tail wagging, friendly to both owners and strangers, coming to you when called -- as if they were a well-trained dog. They're not only unafraid of humans, but also actively seek to bond with them.
Pretty interesting stuff. Plus they're really cute.
Scientists have been studying domestication in foxes since the 1960s -- in an effort to better learn how and why animals became domesticated (an important part of human evolution because it made farming more viable) but also to see how we, as humans, became domesticated. It can also help us better understand how only about 14 different breeds of animals have been domesticated, and so many others never have.
The breeding experiment is what you'd expect: they take a group of foxes, then see which ones are the most friendly, and then breed them together. The end result is offspring that are more and more friendly. In only 4 generations, they can get completely domesticated fox offspring, basically taking thousands of years of domestication and compressed it into just a few years.
As they've worked to isolate the genes responsible for the domestication, they are also looking for other factors that are influenced by these same genes. They know that domesticated foxes tend to be smaller, have floppier ears and curlier tails than their wild counterparts. Their coats also tend to be spotted -- where as their wild counterparts are mostly solid.
Science is wondering if these "downstream effects" are causal, or whether they are just other, unrelated changes that natural selection would normally select out because it would make life in the wild more difficult.
The quick changes are genetics were somewhat suprising -- but as one of the scientists notes:
"At the beginning of the domestication process, only natural selection was at work," as Trut puts it. "Down the road, this natural selection was replaced with artificial selection."
And I've noted in this space before, when animals are artificially selected for breeding, genetic mutations (which would include domestication) happens at a rate at least 10x faster than it happens in a natural environment because most mutations are detrimental to long-term survival and are thus eliminated by natural selection.
As is te case with domestication. In fact, a recent study from out of UCLA is now linking the gene that is involved with domestication is the same gene that has been linked to an uncommon disease called Williams-Beuren -- a disease that's symptom include the sufferers being "overly friendly and trusting of strangers."
And you can see why this might not do well for an animal in the wild.
Beyond just being extremely interesting, the information is also highly relevant in the world of dogs.
Most bred dogs are, of course, artificially selected for breeding. Many are bred merely to get a particular appearance, many for working traits, many for pet-like traits, some for health traits and many for temperament traits.
And I think what most dog breeders will tell you is that they can change the physical appearance and temperament traits fairly quickly in only a few generations (some for the good, and many for the bad). This, of course, is very logical if you follow genetic science on the speed in which genetic mutation can take place under a controlled environment. This also tells the story of why some traditional working breeds have mostly lost their working traits and become pet-like in just a few decades (like most spaniels) and why entire breeds can be created in a fairly short amount of time.
Meanwhile, it is also interesting to think about American Pit Bull Terriers in this construct. While many of the haters out there will try to point at a history of bull baiting, dog fighting etc, it is worth noting that very few of these dogs have been bred for either of these purposes for decades upon decades (and many for literally hundreds of years). And in a very similar way to how behaviors change for other types of dogs (and foxes) because of selected breeding, an individual dog's behavior is much more influenced by its parent's temperaments/appearances than it is its ancestors from hundreds of years ago.
It is also worth noting that while genetics plays a role, nurture also is very important -- and many dogs that are even bred for the purpose of fighting can be rehabilitated with good training.
Which continues to show why those who are more concerned with the traditional function of certain types of dogs than they are their actual, current behavior, are doing nothing more than grasping at straws for something to try to base their (incorrect) opinion on.
Meanwhile, science and reality keep painting a much different picture for the dogs.