February 20, 2011

DOMESTICATION IS ENTIRELY A FUNCTION OF THE HUMAN DECISION TO DOMESTICATE::

Taming the Wild: Only a handful of wild animal species have been successfully bred to get along with humans. The reason, scientists say, is found in their genes. (Evan Ratliff, March 2011, National Geographic)

[M]avrik, as it happens, is not a dog at all. He's a fox. Hidden away on this overgrown property, flanked by birch forests and barred by a rusty metal gate, he and several hundred of his relatives are the only population of domesticated silver foxes in the world. (Most of them are, indeed, silver or dark gray; Mavrik is rare in his chestnut fur.) And by "domesticated" I don't mean captured and tamed, or raised by humans and conditioned by food to tolerate the occasional petting. I mean bred for domestication, as tame as your tabby cat or your Labrador. In fact, says Anna Kukekova, a Cornell researcher who studies the foxes, "they remind me a lot of golden retrievers, who are basically not aware that there are good people, bad people, people that they have met before, and those they haven't." These foxes treat any human as a potential companion, a behavior that is the product of arguably the most extraordinary breeding experiment ever conducted.

It started more than a half century ago, when Trut was still a graduate student. Led by a biologist named Dmitry Belyaev, researchers at the nearby Institute of Cytology and Genetics gathered up 130 foxes from fur farms. They then began breeding them with the goal of re-creating the evolution of wolves into dogs, a transformation that began more than 15,000 years ago.

With each generation of fox kits, Belyaev and his colleagues tested their reactions to human contact, selecting those most approachable to breed for the next generation. By the mid-1960s the experiment was working beyond what he could've imagined. They were producing foxes like Mavrik, not just unafraid of humans but actively seeking to bond with them. His team even repeated the experiment in two other species, mink and rats. "One huge thing that Belyaev showed was the timescale," says Gordon Lark, a University of Utah biologist who studies dog genetics. "If you told me the animal would now come sniff you at the front of the cage, I would say it's what I expect. But that they would become that friendly toward humans that quickly… wow."

Miraculously, Belyaev had compressed thousands of years of domestication into a few years.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2011 6:47 AM
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