Getting a fox from the wild and training it to be a pet is a great idea… until they don’t act like dogs and wreck the place and eat your pocket pets. But now, it seems that foxes can be bred to be friendly pets… or can they?
Erin Hecht earned her PhD in neuroscience more than a decade ago. While studying, she watched a nature special on the Russian farm-fox experiment. It is one of the best-known studies on animal domestication.
The study has been running since 1958. It tries to replicate the natural domestication of wolves to dogs. It does this by selectively breeding two strains of silver foxes so they will hopefully behave differently than actual foxes do in the wild.
Scientists bred one group to be tame and display dog-like behaviours with people, such as licking and tail wagging. The other is bred to react with defensive aggression when faced with human contact. A third strain acts as the control and isn’t bred for any specific behaviours.
Hecht, who’s now an assistant professor at Harvard, was fascinated by the experiment. It has helped scientists closely analyse the effects of domestication on genetics and behaviour. But, she also thought something was missing. “In the TV show, there was nothing about the brain,” Hecht said. “I thought it was kind of crazy that there’s this perfect opportunity to be studying how changes in brain anatomy are related to changes in the genome and changes in behaviour.”
Hecht got in touch with the Siberian institute where the Russian foxes were being studied. Fast forward to today and that email started a whole shebang of possibility.
Hecht and her colleagues analysed the MRI scans of the foxes. They discovered that both the foxes bred to be tame and those bred for aggression have larger brains and more grey matter than the brain of the control group (the foxes not bred for any particular behaviour). The foxes had become SMARTER. These findings run in contrast to studies on chickens, sheep, cats, dogs, horses, and other animals. These studies have shown that domesticated species have smaller brains with less grey matter, than their wild forebears. THEY GOT DUMBER.
Both the nice and naughty foxes showed enlargement in many of the same grey matter regions. This was despite the foxes being bred for opposite behaviours. Significant changes to the structure and organisation of the nervous system can evolve very quickly. In fact, it can happen within the span of less than a hundred generations.
Are we all thinking the same thing here? We can now all have smart, friendly, well-behaved pet foxes? I think we can all daydream about the cuteness. So much cuteness. I think we all need to watch this space…
Like animal stories? Then you might like this story on donkeys!