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Some foxes can be domesticated, thanks to breeding

You probably know that our domestic dogs were once wild wolves, bred by our ancestors for docile behavior over many generations. But what about foxes? Unlike dogs, domesticating foxes is a relatively new phenomenon, and the research that unravels this evolutionary mystery is even fresher.

The study begins with the groundwork laid by a team of dedicated researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The starring scientist of the study is Halie Rando, a former doctoral student at the Illinois Informatics Institute and currently assistant professor at Smith College.

Together with Anna Kukekova, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she undertook the task of tracing the genetics of farmed foxes across the globe to decipher the secrets of their domestication.

Fur demand and domesticating foxes

The catalyst for fox domestication was the increasing demand for silver fox fur in the late 19th century. Breeding these elusive, wild creatures in captivity was a tricky task.

Imagine the jitters of the foxes, unaccustomed to the cage after living free in the wild. Early farmers faced considerable challenges, but their stubborn determination and skilled breeding practices prevailed.

The crux of the research, however, is not just the transformation of fox behavior but also the twist in their genetic tale. As they unraveled layers of genetic data, it was discovered that the foxes found in captive populations worldwide, had their genetic roots in the wild fox populations of North America.

The great fox export

The successful domestication of foxes in Canada led to an export frenzy. It was observed that no matter where you found a farmed fox – from the heart of North America to the distant lands of Eurasia – their ancestral DNA pointed towards North American wild foxes. It seems our foxes were quite the explorers.

In the wake of World War II, the fur demand collapsed in North America, but the USSR kept the industry alive, leading to a more stable and diverse genetic pattern in Eurasian fox populations.

“Some gene signatures were very rare and found only in certain Eurasian farm populations,” Rando said.

“The presence of these rare signatures, along with more diversity overall in Europe, could be due to more stable population sizes there after World War II, whereas those rare types may have been lost when North American farms collapsed.”

Breeding for domesticating foxes

The research also shed light on the famed Russian Farm Fox experiment started in 1959. In a bid to breed foxes as friendly as pet dogs, Russian scientists kickstarted an experiment that would span generations.

Surprisingly, the genetic analysis found no unique genetic origins for the Russian foxes, suggesting that the potential for domestic behavior possibly lies within all farm-bred foxes.

“This study helps to answer questions researchers have asked for years about the geographic origin and genetic background of these fox populations,” Kukekova said.

“Furthermore, some farm foxes may have mixed with native foxes through release events over the years in different locations. Occasionally, unexpected gene signatures show up in native populations, so our study may help to explain where they’re coming from.”

Future of domesticating foxes

The research paper, “Missing history of a modern domesticate: Historical demographics and genetic diversity in farm-bred red fox populations,” has definitely made waves in the scientific community.

Isn’t it fascinating to know how the actions of a few pioneering fox farmers from Prince Edward Island impacted the fox populations around the world?

They inadvertently laid the foundation for a significant genetic diversity that enables scientists years later to study domestication and map gene networks leading to tame behavior.

So, the next time you see a fox, whether in the wild, on a fur farm, or perhaps as a pet, remember the remarkable journey of its ancestors, from the wild frontiers of North America to the heart of Eurasia, and admire the paradox of nature and nurture entwining to shape the behavior of these magnificent animals.

And who knows, perhaps in future, we would be throwing sticks for foxes in parks as they wag their bushy tails in excitement.

The study published in the Journal of Heredity.


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