Articles

We met the world’s first domesticated foxes

September 2, 2019


– Fox number one. So, that is me, locked
in a pen in San Diego. And that is a very special
red fox from Russia. We’re testing whether the fox likes me, because it’s actually bred to
be friendly towards people. And, in that moment, I’m really
hoping it passes the test. I’m just minding my own business. Exotic pets are weirdly compelling, especially on social media. They’re like a glimpse
into this alternate reality where we domesticated raccoons
instead of cats and dogs. But, they’re not really domesticated. Animals like cats, dogs, horses, pigs, we bred them for
generation after generation to live alongside humans. Exotic pets are hand raised, but they’re basically still wild animals with maybe one exception. (soft music) We drove up into the
hills outside San Diego to meet a very few rare animals. They’re foxes that are born without any built-in fear or
aggression towards humans. They wag their tails at
you; they like treats. They’re very curious about you, though they are a little camera shy. There’s nothing quite like them. Aww, I got a lick, I got a lick. We’re visiting Amy and David Bassett at their Canid Education
and Conservation Center. It’s sort of an interactive zoo built to introduce the
general public to foxes. The Bassetts got them as pets, but not from an exotic pet breeder. They’re the result of a nearly 60-year long Russian science experiment. Victor, sit, sit, good fox, good fox. It all traces back to a Soviet geneticist named (speaks foreign language) In the 1950s, (speaks foreign
language) hit on an idea that was radical for its time, that domesticated animals like dogs are friendly to people because of genes that govern their behavior. Meaning, the process that
turned wolves into dogs tens of thousands of years
ago was essentially evolution. There were friendliness
genes that won out in wolves as they adapted to live alongside humans. These foxes exist because of the way (speaks foreign language) tested his idea. In 1959, his team began
selectively breeding foxes at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in remote (speaks
foreign language) Russia. The criterion was simple. The foxes that showed the
least fear or aggression when approached by experimenters
were allowed to breed. The less friendly foxes weren’t. They selected the next
generation of foxes the same way, and the next generation,
and the next, for decades. (speaks foreign language) died in 1985, but the work continued and by 2004 nearly 70% of the foxes had reached an elite level of friendliness. By some measures, they
had domesticated the fox, which is how a few years back two dog lovers found
themselves in over their heads. – We had absolutely no idea. They’re very cheeky, very
mischievous, get into everything, chew and tear everything apart. – [Host] David and Amy currently own five of the only 10 or 15
(speaks foreign language) foxes in the United States. They cost around $9,000
to buy and import one all the way from Siberia and they came with a learning curve. – We learned quickly that they
are not really house trained. So, they will poop and pee everywhere. So, it’s not very easy to have them in your kitchen, say, when they jump on the counters and poop. – [Host] The Bassetts have since adjusted to life with foxes, but they’ve learned that being
domesticated is one thing, being man’s best friend is another. – While they are certainly tame, they’re fascinating
and incredible animals, they’re still foxes and
when you domesticate a fox, you don’t make a dog, you
make a domesticated fox. Anymore than when you domesticate
a horse you make a dog. – [Host] So, (speaks
foreign language) did not recreate the dog, but for anyone studying how wolves evolved into dogs, the foxes might still represent a behavioral stepping stone. – [Host] Clive Wynne is
professor of psychology at Arizona State. He studies the unique relationship
between dogs and people and the way that dogs go above and beyond simple friendliness towards humans. – [Host] Accord to Clive,
at least 14,000 years ago hyper-social dogs emerged from
a population of wild wolves and no one’s really sure how it happened. – [Host] But, the (speaks
foreign language) foxes might offer a clue. Clive and his team have a simple test to see how far along the foxes are on their path to doghood. And they told us how to carry it out. So, the experiment is really simple. I have a one-meter radius circle all the way around me and they’re gonna bring
in a fox one at a time into this enclosure. The idea was to see
how much of two minutes the foxes would spend inside my circle. We tried first with the three (speaks foreign language) foxes and one-by-one they
trotted up, sniffed me, and then relaxed somewhere else, which has been Clive’s
experience with the foxes, too. – [Host] For comparison,
we also tested a fox that was hand-reared by
humans, but genetically wild. It never set foot inside the radius and it never relaxed. And, for a final
contrast, we tested a dog. I gotta ignore you for two minutes. Afterwards, we got to spend some more time with the (speaks foreign language) foxes and they were completely tame with us, just not so friendly. Clive and the Bassetts suspect that this is because of their
early lives as lab animals. They were bred for
generations to be friendly, but then barely socialized as youngsters, and that’s important, too. – [Host] Clive and his team
plan to keep studying fox behavior to build out a roadmap
for how dogs became dogs. But, locked inside each of
those foxes is another roadmap, one that might help explain
domestication in any animal. – [Host] Anna Kukekova is a
professor or animal sciences at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since 2002, she’s been collaborating with the institute in
Russia on genetics research. Her goal is to reach the absolute core of the fox experiment, the specific genes involved
in fox domestication. And a few weeks ago, she and
her team published a paper in Nature, Ecology, and Evolution that made a lot of progress. – [Host] Anna’s research is valuable, because it directly compares the genes of wild and domesticated foxes. We can do that with wolves and dogs, but we can’t infer as much about it. As dogs evolved, friendliness just wasn’t the only trait that mattered. For example, they also
had to digest human food. So, we can see which genes
changed from wolves to dogs, but it’s harder to know whether those really are behavior genes. On the other hand, there
was only one fox trait that (speaks foreign
language) selected for, friendliness towards humans. So, here it’s a little easier to associate behavior with DNA. – [Host] This is such a big deal, because there’s a lot of
overlap in mammalian genes. So, these genes that Anna found, they could help us
understand domestication across the board. And, given that, it’s
possible that we could use gene editing tools to domesticate entirely new animals in the lab, maybe. – [Host] But, back in reality, where does that leave the foxes? They’re still being
bred for the experiment, but they’re also trickling
out into the world as pets, which puts them in a strange no-man’s land between a wild animal and a companion. They were not created
the same way dogs were and they’re certainly not dogs now. But, if you know to look for it, there’s a hint of something
familiar about them. – You take the short
moments when they’re scared they’ll come to you. If you’re open to it and
you realize what that means. What’s the significance
of this semi-wild animal who just came to you for comfort and that’s kind of what
you have to understand in order to bond with a fox. It’s these small moments that have huge significance to them. (soft music) – So, one thing we didn’t
talk about was that even though (speaks foreign
language) only selected for friendliness, there were a lot of physical changes to the foxes, too. Their coats were different,
their ears got floppier, even their skulls changed. It’s called domestication syndrome and you should read about
it, because it is wild.

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