Friendly Foxes

I should be on a weekly schedule starting next week, perhaps with a long-delayed post on epigenetics. Until then, here's something that I found fascinating.

The New York Times recently tracked the progress of Dmitri Belyaev's epic fox domestication experiment. The result:
After 40 years of the experiment, and the breeding of 45,000 foxes, a group of animals had emerged that were as tame and as eager to please as a dog.

As Belyaev had predicted, other changes appeared along with the tameness, even though they had not been selected for. The tame silver foxes had begun to show white patches on their fur, floppy ears, rolled tails and smaller skulls.

One possibility is that a handful of genes — perhaps even just one — underlie all the changes seen in domestication. A structure in the embryo of all vertebrates, known as the neural crest, is the source of cells that constitute much of the face, skull and pigment cells, and many parts of the peripheral nervous system and endocrine system. If the genes in the neural crest cells were delayed just a little in coming into action, a whole range of tissues could be affected, including the maturation of the adrenal glands that underlies the first fear response of young animals.
There's much more in the article* and follow-up Q&A, including some speculation on how similar domestication processes might have been involved in human evolution.

John Hawks raises a question about why domestication is possible at all, from the viewpoint of genetic variation:
The rats and foxes haven't so much undergone genetic changes as simple enrichment of alleles that are already common. Which means that they may have unusual phenotypes as a result of these alleles being coincident at high frequencies, but those alleles already are doing something in normal, wild (and mostly solitary) animals. This doesn't mean that the tame phenotype should already exist -- even if all these alleles are independently common, if there are enough of them they may never all be present in any single wild individual.

So the interesting question is why these alleles that permit domestication in combination should already be common.
Domestication may involve multiple vectors, but a delay in the development of the neural crest appears to be a centrally important factor in this fox experiment. Now, given that humans have undergone some level of "self-domestication," could we extend this result to humans? Could delaying the development of the neural crest in humans delay the whole maturation process, as is suggested by some parts of Baelyav's fox results? And what might that mean for us today? Is there still significant genetic variation here- i.e. are some individuals or groups of people more "genetically domesticated" than others?

My complete speculation here is that a high concentration of these genes selected for in domestication might result in a prolonged childhood and adolescence and lead to the existence of geeks (and perhaps a certain sort of intellectual in general). Geeks seem to hit their peak later in life and are often described as relatively non-aggressive, eager to please, late bloomers, lifelong learners, and even eternal kids (though they don't seem to have floppy ears or rolled tails!).

Anyway, this story- and the research that comes from it- will be something worth watching.

*I've had trouble with the direct link- try here if the link above cuts to a different NYT story.


Amam said...

haha, a "genetically domesticated" group of people. I hope not. Racial stuff is heated enough without that popping up. :P

Kosmo said...

I hadn't considered the geek connection, Mike. That's an interesting idea.

I've been following Dmitri's foxes for a while now because of some similar findings I had with mice. (Instead of breeding for tameness, and getting white-spotting, I bred for maximum expression of white-spotting, and got extreme tameness.)


Mike said...

Fascinating. Will it be or has it been published? I'd love to read about it.

(Greetings, fellow John Hawks fan.)

Dr. Justine Lee said...

Mike, since you were the one who told me about this years ago, I have to give kudos to you for one of the questions out of my book:

Can I get a domesticated fox?

Russian geneticist Dmitri Bjalef bred back 10 generations of initially vicious foxes for “friendly” traits. What he noticed was that as the foxes got nicer, their coats got uglier. They began to look multi-colored, mangy, and disheveled. What this scientific breeding experiment showed is that the gene for coat color may be linked to “stress” hormones such as epinephrine. Friendly foxes appeared to have lower epinephrine levels (which resulted in lower aggression), but they just didn’t look as cool. To sum up, while Bjalef’s study did prove that you can domesticate wild animals, unless you’re looking for a really ugly one, please don’t try adopting a fox!

Material from "It's a Dog's Life... but It's Your Carpet," available at amazon.com. More information available at www.drjustinelee.com

Copyright © 2008 Justine Lee Veterinary Consulting, LLC.

Mike said...


I still want one, though. :-)