as devoted as dogs, as independent as cats, the domesticated silver fox!
June 21, 2010 12:44 PM   Subscribe

The silver fox, domesticated over 40 generations by the late Siberian scientist Dmitri Belayev. Belayev and his students started this experiment in 1959 by selecting specifically for human-friendly behaviors. More on the observed differences between domesticated and wild foxes in the original paper that appeared in American Scientist Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment (pdf).

More: National Geographic article including cute baby fox photos. Pups for sale for 5K+ to raise money for the continuation of the experiment. How domestication altered other cognition development and physical differences in foxes. The New York Times discusses Belayev's work, not known widely outside of Russia until 1999. [via]
posted by jessamyn (63 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obligatory Radiolab link.
posted by kmz at 12:47 PM on June 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


omg
posted by grobstein at 12:47 PM on June 21, 2010


Wow, that's fascinati -- oh, look at their widdle faces! Who's a special little fox baby? Is it you? Yes it is! Yes it is!
posted by fight or flight at 12:48 PM on June 21, 2010 [27 favorites]


Great, now I want one of these and I already wanted a fennec fox. Foxes are incredible, and the scenes in Grizzly Man with them were beyond wonderful.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:54 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the NYTimes link:
“The ferocious rats cannot be handled,” Mr. Albert said. “They will not tolerate it. They go totally crazy if you try to pick them up.”

When the aggressive rats have to be moved, Mr. Albert places two cages side by side with the doors open and lets the rats change cages by themselves. He is taking care that they do not escape to the sewers of Leipzig, he said.
The movie script writes itself!
posted by Drastic at 12:57 PM on June 21, 2010 [13 favorites]


All foxes come neutered. It is illegal to breed Sibirian[sic] tame foxes bought from Siberian farm.

And extremely difficult, I should think.
posted by condour75 at 12:58 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I thought this was a post about Charlie Rich. Christ, that sonofabitch could sing.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:58 PM on June 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


The amazing thing is $5,000 isn't even that much for a dog when you consider certain breeds and provenance.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:58 PM on June 21, 2010


As I was finding links for this after the initial two I found the link on dev.null.org which pointed to an old MeFi thread about domesticated cats where I realized that this was something I was fascinated by a year ago and then completely forgot I ever knew anything about it. The whole Soviet-era angle [where ths guy's devotion to classical genetics may have cost him his job] is also interesting since this was going on for 40 years before "the outside world" [aka American media in this case] knew much about it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:01 PM on June 21, 2010


$5,000 isn't even that much

True, but I shudder at the cost of shipping a live fox from Siberia to anywhere that is not Siberia.
posted by hoperaiseshell at 1:01 PM on June 21, 2010


This seems strangely like a good use of $6,000. I mean, having a baby is probably more expensive than this, and a pet is like a part of the family. And the foxes are so cute. I'm not crazy, am I?
posted by shii at 1:02 PM on June 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hmm.

When I read about this in biology, the text book said they were breeding foxes with silver coats in order to use in the fur industry. The friendly behavior was an unexpected by-product which led to a greater understanding of linking in gene expression.

I'm fairly sure there was never a nefarious Soviet plot to breed friendly domestic fox comrades.
posted by jefficator at 1:02 PM on June 21, 2010


True, but I shudder at the cost of shipping a live fox from Siberia to anywhere that is not Siberia.
posted by hoperaiseshell


Sibfox.com seems to indicate that their $6k price includes shipping and all.
posted by haveanicesummer at 1:03 PM on June 21, 2010


Thanks to an article in a discarded Cosmo I found on a plane a few years ago, when I read the first line of this post, I really thought that this was going to be the subject.
posted by phunniemee at 1:04 PM on June 21, 2010


Sibfox.com seems to indicate that their $6k price includes shipping and all.

Shipping from Russia that is, you have to go to Vegas to pick it up, I think.
posted by haveanicesummer at 1:05 PM on June 21, 2010


According to the Null Device blog:
The original purpose of the breeding was to create a friendly breed less likely than wild animals to fight when put to death. But in time, geneticists saw that far-reaching changes they observed in the foxes' physical and neurological makeup merited scientific study. The scientists apparently underwent some changes, too. Close bonds developed between the tame foxes and their human wardens, and the staff at the fur farm is trying to find ways of saving the animals from slaughter.
Note, this taken from the 1999 New York Times article, which jessamyn linked in a prior domestication thread (the via link).
posted by filthy light thief at 1:07 PM on June 21, 2010


Shipping from Russia that is, you have to go to Vegas to pick it up, I think.

I smell a buddy movie. Is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson available?
posted by condour75 at 1:08 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Darwin on Domestication
posted by benzenedream at 1:09 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Six grand, huh? Time to take that HELOC. True, I did just buy my first home three months ago, but PET FOX PET FOX PET FOX!
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:11 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


filthy light thief: "The scientists apparently underwent some changes, too. Close bonds developed between the tame foxes and their human wardens, and the staff at the fur farm is trying to find ways of saving the animals from slaughter."

I remember reading that the domestication of animals also led to the domestication of ourselves. This seems fairly appropriate when taken with that view.
posted by charred husk at 1:12 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Close bonds developed between the tame foxes and their human wardens, and the staff at the fur farm is trying to find ways of saving the animals from slaughter.

I would see that movie.

FOX #1: Comrades! I have an idea! If we wag our tails and make cute leetle noises like a puppy, perhaps they will take pity on us and set us free!
FOX #2: You are crazy!
FOX #1: Crazy.. like a fox! (turns to the camera, winks)
posted by fight or flight at 1:18 PM on June 21, 2010 [17 favorites]


So cute! Er, I mean this is an interesting insight.
posted by maxwelton at 1:18 PM on June 21, 2010


I know foxes aren't wolves, but this implies that it didn't take long for canines to integrate themselves into human societies. It could have happened within a single person's lifetime, too. No wonder we've been tinkering with dog breeds for so long.
posted by tommasz at 1:22 PM on June 21, 2010


They're cute, but they don't really look like foxes any more. Or apparently act like them either!

We have two fairly large male cats that have been trained to an underground fence (it's not much more difficult to do with cats than with dogs), so they can be outside for short times without direct supervision - we never let them stay outside when there isn't at least one of us home, though, and we do still check on them frequently. Even though they don't want to go through the "fence" and get shocked, they can bolt through it if they're chasing a squirrel or something - likewise, coyotes can certainly get in to attack them (we live in a pretty rural area of Massachusetts).

One afternoon, my wife looked out the window and saw both cats sitting on the sidewalk, about three feet from the electric fence line, staring intently. She thought they might be hunting something, so she went out to check. Sitting on the other side of the electric fence line, also about three feet away, was a red fox. Neither the cats nor the fox were particularly upset or frightened - she described the scene as each side trying to figure out just what the other one was. When the fox saw my wife, however, it took off.

After the requisite research, we learned that unlike coyotes, foxes have never been known to attack or otherwise harm domestic pets unless attacked themselves, and are very curious. Accordingly, we didn't worry about the fox coming around to "talk" to the cats again. After that we both saw the same fox several times, and once it had a pair of kits with it, as if it were showing off its children to the cats. They're really beautiful animals, but unmistakably "wild" when you see them, unlike the domesticated foxes in the articles.
posted by yhbc at 1:29 PM on June 21, 2010 [8 favorites]


I remember seeing a piece about this on PBS a few years ago. Here's a clip.
posted by homunculus at 1:30 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


My brother has recently had a mother gray fox and two kits living in his backyard in Maine (thanks to his regular squirrel feeding). I'm sure he'd be willing to sell you one for a lot less than $6000.
posted by briank at 1:38 PM on June 21, 2010


yhbc: "They're cute, but they don't really look like foxes any more."

Are you suggesting that the physical characteristics were significantly changed in 40 generations of breeding within a s? I doubt that very much, and the foxes closely resemble the ones bred for aggression, or for that matter the other images of silver foxes I've been able to find around the web.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:41 PM on June 21, 2010


Identification of regions implicated in the development of friendly behavior in the fox genome will also provide an opportunity to define new candidate genes for autistic and other human neurological disorders that are accompanied by the impaired development of social reciprocity.

Wow. Not sure if this is legitimate, or a leap to simply get research dollars. Anyone have any insight?
posted by fyrebelley at 1:46 PM on June 21, 2010


Are you suggesting that the physical characteristics were significantly changed in 40 generations of breeding within a s?

I think that's exactly what this link from the original post. Which was the most fascinating bit to me, particularly this:
Moreover, the faces of adult tame foxes came to look more juvenile than the faces of wild adults, and many of the experimental animals developed dog-like features, Dr. Trut reported. Although no selective pressures relating to size or shape were used in breeding the animals, the skulls of tamable foxes tended to be narrower with shorter snouts than those of wild foxes.
posted by devinemissk at 1:47 PM on June 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Does anybody know if the experiment is still taking place or has it been completely abandoned at this time?
posted by The1andonly at 1:56 PM on June 21, 2010


Joakim Ziegler, that's my understanding, too, that in breeding in dog-like behavior, they coincidentally bred in dog-like appearance.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:56 PM on June 21, 2010


Sorta related: Miss Snooks, the tame fox.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:58 PM on June 21, 2010


“The ferocious rats cannot be handled,” Mr. Albert said. “They will not tolerate it. They go totally crazy if you try to pick them up.”

That's nothing, I was in the subway once and I'm pretty sure a rat told me to "fuck off" then proceed to ask me for spare change.
posted by geoff. at 1:58 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


2 adopted foxes and the 'stepmom' dog. Probably belongs in this thread...
posted by ts;dr at 2:03 PM on June 21, 2010


Identification of regions implicated in the development of friendly behavior in the fox genome will also provide an opportunity to define new candidate genes for autistic and other human neurological disorders that are accompanied by the impaired development of social reciprocity.

Wow. Not sure if this is legitimate, or a leap to simply get research dollars. Anyone have any insight?


Well, all NIH funding must be tied to potential advancements in human health (even if they are merely theoretical). Generally, you don't want to make claims so wild that the reviewers will laugh at you. If you have the idea that "domestication" is a phenomenon controlled by a few genes, and humans are domesticated apes, then you might very well suppose that deviation from norm on those genes could result in "abnormal" behavior. So ... a little of both? You can't just propose studying something because you think it's interesting.
posted by Humanzee at 2:08 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


MrMoonPie: ...that in breeding in dog-like behavior...

Just thought this was funny in a suggestive sort of way.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:22 PM on June 21, 2010




Does anybody know if the experiment is still taking place or has it been completely abandoned at this time?

From what I've read they're down to 100 foxes in the experiment and the fox-for-sale gambit is partly to raise money for further research but I didn't look at the dates of everything to see what was the most current.
posted by jessamyn at 2:45 PM on June 21, 2010


Great post, thanks!
posted by languagehat at 3:16 PM on June 21, 2010


Pups for sale for 5K+ to raise money for the continuation of the experiment

It's about friggin' time. I've been following this experiment on and off for the last decade, and they kept suggesting that they might start selling the foxes as pets, and then they kept not doing it. And worse, I thought that the experiment itself had more or less been shelved.

Still, $5k is a bit out of my price range, but I'm thrilled to see that it's not outside of the realms of possible that one day I could have a pet fox.

Because really, a clever, mischievous dog with the agility and abilities of a cat? What could possibly go wrong?
posted by quin at 3:20 PM on June 21, 2010 [8 favorites]


(via homunculus's link): Horizon's "The Secret Life of the Dog".
posted by unmake at 3:53 PM on June 21, 2010


> Are you suggesting that the physical characteristics were significantly changed in 40 generations of breeding within a s?

As mentioned earlier, when the Cuddly Soviet Fox Experiment came up on AskMeFi:

...once selective breeding brought the baseline adrenaline levels underneath a certain threshold, out came the floppy ears, spotted coats, relative dimness, and puppy-like behavior.
posted by darth_tedious at 3:55 PM on June 21, 2010


The one argument against foxes as pets: they are stinky. Foxes use urine to scentmark their territory, and fox urine smells a lot like skunk spray, only less strong. You may be able to train your cub to use a fox-box, but the box's vicinity will be a zone of reeking horror.

Walking through London, you can always smell where the urban foxes have been marking.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:56 PM on June 21, 2010


The domestic foxes actually lose that fox smell, according to the wikipedia article. When I was a kid we used to go to a place called Drumlin Farm which was one of those sort of "hey city kids, come check out a farm" places, but they had some wild animals there too, some in rehab, some that had been injured. There was a fox there called Logan who they had found at Logan airport and I remember looking around for the skunk that must have been in the same pen because it STANK. There was even a sign there explaining that no, that smell really was the fox.
posted by jessamyn at 4:03 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I LOVE BABY FOXES!
posted by darkpony at 4:55 PM on June 21, 2010


PonyGrantRequest: Please repeat this study with octopuses, raccoons, bears, etc. I'll be here in my Time Machine watching kthx
posted by not_on_display at 5:46 PM on June 21, 2010


They would likely learn to use litter box if they live around cats.

Something about this pet is really, really appealing to me. Like the perfect synergy between the dog my husband wants and the cats I love.

*goes and buys lottery ticket, keeps fingers crossed, coos at pictures of baby foxes*
posted by jeoc at 6:26 PM on June 21, 2010


Like the perfect synergy between the dog my husband wants and the cats I love.

At 6:10 in the Horizon clip, the lead researcher says:
"If foxes were brought up in a domestic environment, interacting with other animals and humans, they would make fantastic pets. They are as independent as cats, but at the same time as devoted as any dog could be." - over video from an office, with a cat lounging on a desk while a nearby fox cuddles on the lap of a researcher.
posted by unmake at 6:49 PM on June 21, 2010


Apparently you don't even have to breed them for domestication, you just have to give them all the coffee and BBC radio 2 they want!
posted by grapesaresour at 7:01 PM on June 21, 2010


Hey, cool! I learned about this in the dog cognition class I took at Harvard Extension (dunno if Bruce Blumberg is still teaching there, but it was a sweet class), and I still use it as an example whenever talking about domestication, because it's so nice and comprehensible.
Also, dang, like everyone else, I want a neotenic curly-tailed housefox.
posted by zusty at 7:22 PM on June 21, 2010


can we get them in red? =3333
posted by rubah at 8:21 PM on June 21, 2010


"Something I was fascinated by a year ago and then completely forgot I ever knew anything about it" is the new name of my blog.
posted by sudama at 8:49 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]




Wow. Not sure if this is legitimate, or a leap to simply get research dollars. Anyone have any insight?


Why can't it be both ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:42 PM on June 21, 2010


Wooo, foxes! SO AWESOME! When I was living in Dublin (Ireland, not Ohio), I was astounded at how *many* foxes were around. They were as common as raccoons are here in Toronto, and they get into your garbage the same way too. But there wasn't as much in the way of horrendous screeching noises, which was nice.

Also, I know somebody with a pet skunk. Now *that* is something that will scare the shit out of you the first time you see it.
posted by antifuse at 9:21 AM on June 22, 2010


Identification of regions implicated in the development of friendly behavior in the fox genome will also provide an opportunity to define new candidate genes for autistic and other human neurological disorders that are accompanied by the impaired development of social reciprocity.

Wow. Not sure if this is legitimate, or a leap to simply get research dollars. Anyone have any insight?


It's legitimate. It sounds similar to deep homology, which you can read about here.

"Crazier still, Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms."

Comparing gene sequences of different organisms can be useful, especially when the same cluster of genes can be found in two organisms, doing completely (or moderately) different things.

For more information on the genetic basis of autism spectrum disorders, see here.
posted by lholladay at 11:40 AM on June 22, 2010


I wonder to what extent we have domesticated ourselves, and what changes (if any) can be attributed to that.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:08 PM on June 22, 2010


I wonder to what extent we have domesticated ourselves, and what changes (if any) can be attributed to that.

There's a fair amount of writing on the subject; here's a recent book.
posted by grobstein at 3:17 PM on June 22, 2010


(So far this stuff is very speculative.)
posted by grobstein at 3:30 PM on June 22, 2010


Read "the silver fox" and thought for all the world that this post would be about Anderson Cooper.

I read too much Gawker.
posted by LiliaNic at 7:18 PM on June 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of the things I've been fascinated with in the last few years is the idea that the thing that makes dogs primarily different from wolves is that we've bred dogs to read human body/facial language:
The anthropologist Brian Hare has done experiments with dogs, for example, where he puts a piece of food under one of two cups, placed several feet apart. The dog knows that there is food to be had, but has no idea which of the cups holds the prize. Then Hare points at the right cup, taps on it, looks directly at it. What happens? The dog goes to the right cup virtually every time. Yet when Hare did the same experiment with chimpanzees—an animal that shares 98.6 per cent of our genes—the chimps couldn't get it right. A dog will look at you for help, and a chimp won't.

"Primates are very good at using the cues of the same species," Hare explained. "So if we were able to do a similar game, and it was a chimp or another primate giving a social cue, they might do better. But they are not good at using human cues when you are trying to coöperate with them. They don't get it: 'Why would you ever tell me where the food is?' The key specialization of dogs, though, is that dogs pay attention to humans, when humans are doing something very human, which is sharing information about something that someone else might actually want. "Dogs aren't smarter than chimps; they just have a different attitude toward people. "Dogs are really interested in humans," Hare went on. " Interested to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball."
And now, with the silver foxes, we get a bit of insight into how we must have domesticated wolves and turned them into dogs. I find that so fucking cool.

I do hope they find the funding to continue.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:32 PM on July 1, 2010


In the chimp-dog experiment . . . is it clear that the result is explained by breeding rather than training?
posted by grobstein at 9:59 PM on July 1, 2010


In the chimp-dog experiment . . . is it clear that the result is explained by breeding rather than training?
"Using his parents' garage as his lab and the family dogs as his research subjects, the 19-year-old devised a simple experiment. When a dog wasn't watching, he hid a treat beneath one of two plastic cups. He then showed the dog the cups and either pointed to or looked at the one covering the treat. "They knew exactly what to do," he recalls. "They headed straight for the right cup and got their treat." (The dogs couldn't smell where the food was hidden.)

Although the results of Hare's experiment might not have surprised many dog owners, the study caught the attention of scientists who study animal cognition. At the time, most were hesitant to credit any animal with the ability to infer what another being is thinking—only humans were supposed to have that facility.

"These experiments test whether an animal is able to think about the thoughts of others, as we do," says Hare.
My reading of it is that since this behavior is so common among domesticated dogs and totally lacking in chimps (and wolves), that the effects of thousands of years of human selective breeding is the likely answer.

Here's a related interesting fact. I don't have the reference handy, but a researcher found that when domesticated dogs go feral, they don't form proper "packs" in the same way that wolves do. They don't work together to bring down prey, they scavenge rubbish heaps or wait for something to die and maybe gang up on it. Dogs have lost so many of the instinctual wolf behaviors to domestication that they do not know how to survive as wild animals anymore.

Temple Grandin goes into the loss of wolf instincts in dogs in her book Animals Make Us Human.

On a side note to wolves and packs, she hipped a monkey to recent research that has indicated our ideas of wolves in the wild are faulty. In captivity wolves fight to establish dominance, leading to the alpha/beta hierarchy. But this activity is the result of forcing unrelated wolves to live together in captivity as a pack.

In the wild, a wolf pack is a family. The alphas are mom & dad and maintain their position not through fending off challengers, but because they're mom & dad. Lone wolves are not outcasts who lost a dominance challenge, but adolescents out looking for a mate.

Canids in North America and their relations with humans have been on my mind recently with my writing projects. And of the ideas I've been working with is:
-Wolf is proud and wild, but Human has eaten all the wild places and leaves Wolf on a reservation out of pity.

-Dog thrives and Dog's puppies are many and spread wide. But Dog is mankind's creature. Dog lives in Mankind's house, eats mankind's canned food, wear's Mankind's collar and leash, and wanders aimlessly without Mankind. And Dog loves Mankind for it

-Coyote remains both wild and free in the world Mankind has shaped. Coyote lives in the wild places, but also in Mankind's suburbs. However big or small the ecological niche is, Coyote will find a place in it. Coyote forms packs, couples or lives alone. Coyote hunts, scavenges, and eats garbage. Coyote lives where wolf cannot, and lives free in a way dog cannot. The Dude abides, Coyote thrives, and doesn't ask Mankind's permission.

And now come the domesticated silver foxes. How are they going to fit into the picture? What are they're relations with humans going to be like? Can the domesticated foxes survive in the wild, or are does domestication take an animal out of the can-survive-in-the-wild loop this quickly?

Like I said, I hope they get more research funding.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:19 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


All very interesting. But if these are domesticated dogs that have grown up with humans and are accustomed to getting their food via interacting closely with humans . . . there may be a learning effect. Ya dig?

At the time, most were hesitant to credit any animal with the ability to infer what another being is thinking—only humans were supposed to have that facility.

That stereotype is way out of date, I think. But this experiment is also not great evidence for theory of mind.
posted by grobstein at 11:23 PM on July 1, 2010


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