Animal IQ

There Is One Tame Population of Foxes on Earth, All Thanks to a Russian Geneticist

We need your help! Our podcast is nominated for an award and your vote can help us win. Please click here to vote for Curiosity Daily for Best Technology & Science Podcast in the 2019 Discover Pods Awards — voting closes Monday, November 18 at 6 p.m. Eastern.

There are cat people, then there are dog people. While those two sides may never totally see eye-to-eye, there might just a little space for them to meet in the middle. One word: foxes. Thanks to a 1950s project by a Russian geneticist, one population of tame foxes exists. If you've ever wondered about owning a fox as a pet, listen up.

Related: Woman in Moscow Metro with Domesticated Fox on Her Shoulder

Operation Adorable

In 1948, the Soviet Union officially declared genetics a pseudoscience (it's not), swiftly firing all geneticists from their jobs. Long story short, the concept of genetics (Gregor Mendel-style) didn't jibe well with the tenets of communism. A geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev was booted from his job as a result but didn't let that end his research. He sought out to trace the evolutionary pathway of domesticated animals by attempting to domesticate some foxes, specifically silver-black foxes. But, as far as the government knew, Belyaev was just breeding foxes to make better fur coats.

Belyaev and his intern Lyudmila Trut traveled around to different fox farms (where the lil' guys were being bred for their fur), taking the foxes that exhibited one key trait: friendliness. Around 10 percent of the foxes in these cages had a weak "wild-response," meaning they were docile around people. The first generation of the friendly foxes for the team's domestication experiment was made up of 100 vixens and 30 males. When the first generation had cubs, the team carried out the most adorable job of all time by hand-feeding and petting the little cuties for a strictly measured period of time. The friendliest of the foxes went on to breed the next generation, and so on and so on.

What Does the Fox Say?

By the fourth generation of friendly fox litters, the researchers started noticing dramatic changes. Foxes were wagging their tails, eagerly looking for human contact, and licking the scientists like puppies. As the generations of foxes got friendlier and more dog-like, strangely, they were changing physically too. Not only did they start making different vocalizations than wild foxes, but these foxes also developed a more delicate appearance, with floppier ears, widened heads, shorter legs, and curlier tails. In a word, these foxes were just getting ... cuter. Want to see for yourself? Check out the video below.

The team had successfully created a genetically distinct population of foxes, which remains the only one in the world. This feat is mind-blowing for a few reasons: First, it happened so quickly. With intense selective breeding, Belyaev and Trut compressed into a few decades an ancient process that occurs over thousands of years. Second, though selection was only based on tamability, the foxes changed physiologically, anatomically, and behaviorally. Strangely, this could give us insight into how humans evolved. Because we're far less aggressive and violent than chimps, our closest relatives, we may have moved up in the world based on our friendliness. If this was the case, our intelligence was just a nice byproduct, not the needle-mover in our success as a species.

But back to the foxes for a second. Where are they now? The friendly fox operation is still up and running today, headed by Trut. By the late 1990s, the team began selling the fuzzy cutie as house pets. A Florida-based company called the Lester Kalmanson Agency Inc imports foxes. To get a pet fox of your own, contact them, and get ready to shell out $8,900 for your dream pet.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Hear the whole story in "How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution" by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto August 24, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.