Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"
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    Senior Member begemot's Avatar
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    Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    It's at slate.com. "Guarding the Fox House: A famous animal experiment is in peril, after 54 years of work", by Ceiridwen Terrill. I thought people here probably know about this experiment, and would be interested in the update.



    Here's what the article says, if anyone doesn't feel like following the link (which is a mistake, because there's a really cute video of a fox getting belly rubs):

    "The battered Volga bounces us along the buckled roads, frozen and thawed over long Siberian winters. With me in the van are geneticist Lyudmila Trut and her assistant Anastāsiya Kharlamova, whom I met earlier that morning at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia. Now in her 70s, Trut, a petite woman in a blue pinstripe jacket and light gray pants, peers through thick glasses, trying to read a scientific paper as we drive. A few minutes later, the driver stops at the dented metal gate to the experimental farm, and Trut leads the way down dilapidated rows of narrow barracks-style sheds, morning glories sprouting from cracks in the paved walkways. The farm houses 3,000 foxes, each open-air wooden shed holding 100 or so animals in adjacent wire cages. The three of us put on white lab coats and prepare to greet the foxes.

    "When I open the door to one fox’s cage, the only home it will ever know, the little guy doesn’t shrink in fear as a wild creature could be expected to. Instead he lets me scoop him up, then nuzzles my neck and licks my fingers. Kharlamova, a slim young woman with shoulder-length brown hair, explains that the fox is “emotional” because I’m giving him the attention he wants.

    "Although domestication of dogs took thousands of years, Russian geneticist Dmitry K. Belyaev tried to reproduce the whole messy process in one human lifetime, eliminating all the dead ends and inefficiencies of chance and human blunder. In 1957, he began a domestication experiment with the farmed fox Vulpes vulpes, a distant cousin of the dog. In March 2011, a National Geographic article described the experiment as if it were finally on the verge of completion. Researchers were scanning the genomes of the “domesticated silver foxes,” it said, in the hopes of finding “key domestication genes.” But there's a problem with this narrative: Even after 54 years of research, we still don't know whether the animals have reached the original end point set out by the project's founder.

    "Belyaev, who died in 1985 and left Lyudmila Trut in charge of the project, was clear about his goal: The foxes would be considered fully domesticated only when they obeyed human commands as dogs do. That part of the experiment is still unfinished. No evidence exists to tell us whether the foxes can be trained to override their instincts, the way a dog might learn to avoid defecating on the carpet, or to stay at the heel instead of running off to seek the company of other canines. Belyaev would never have called the experiment over until a whole population of foxes had shown that they were biddable, eager to please, and able to pass those qualities to their offspring. Now Trut would like to put those qualities to the test, but her experiment has stalled for lack of money. After 51 generations of foxes, the world’s foremost domestication experiment languishes. If nothing is done to save it, we'll have missed an opportunity to understand the mechanisms of domestication, of which genetic tameness—friendly behavior that is not learned but inherited—is only one component.

    "Belyaev began with several hypotheses: People created the dog, and they did it by selecting—first unintentionally and then intentionally—for behavior. He could replicate and accelerate the dog’s domestication process with the fox, he theorized, by rigorously selecting for tameness, which would eventually allow him to uncover the genetic mechanisms responsible for changing the dog’s wild ancestor into our beloved Fido. From fur farms where foxes had been bred in captivity for more than 50 years, Belyaev chose 130 of the calmest animals, descendants of foxes who’d already passed an unintentional selection test for tameness simply by surviving the original lure, capture, and confinement that literally scares some wild foxes to death. Kits born to Belyaev’s founding population and each succeeding generation of kits were subjected to a standardized tameness test, each animal ranked according to its response to a human experimenter who tried to touch and feed it. Only those foxes that showed tolerance for the nearness of people were selected and bred to produce the next generation, while fearful or aggressive animals were culled. Each generation of foxes grew more approachable, many showing doglike yearning for human contact. The experimental farm presently houses a stable population of genetically tame foxes.

    "Results of testing by anthropologist Brian Hare and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have shown that Belyaev’s foxes respond to pointing cues almost as well as dogs, which means they’re attuned to human interaction. But although we have the occasional anecdote of a fox walking on a leash or another sitting for a treat, no systematic socialization and training program has been launched to test the capacity and willingness of the foxes to respond to classic obedience cues—come, sit, down, stay, and settle— defining characteristics of a domestic canine. If fox kits are raised like dog puppies, put to the training test, and pass, then scientists would know that all the genes relevant to domestication are present in their genome. They’d just have to find them.

    "Unfortunately, the experiment is broke. Grant money is scarce in Russia, where economic crises hit in 1998 and again in 2008. Trut has resorted to selling some of the foxes into the exotic pet trade through SibFox Inc., a private company in Las Vegas. For $6,950, the U.S. distributor promises a tame four-month-old fox “delivered to your door in 90 days.” Since the foxes’ critical window of socialization—the period during which they form primary bonds—closes when the animals are about 60 to 65 days old, it’s no wonder the distributor advises housing the foxes in cages with bottoms or dig guards to prevent escape, because that’s what the foxes try to do.

    "But the fact is, people aren’t lining up for pet foxes, and each year Trut and her team must either euthanize or sell several hundred foxes to fur farms because she can barely afford basic upkeep. As of this writing, fewer than five foxes have been sold in the United States as pets, and only a handful live with wealthy Russians. One sent to a home in Moscow went roaming and found himself a wild girlfriend whom he occasionally brought around for dinner. She wouldn’t go near the house, and he stayed only long enough to eat a bit of meat—less a pet than a roommate. Yet Trut soldiers on, trying to preserve the integrity of the genetic line in case funding should materialize for a rigorous socialization and training program.

    "For the experiment to continue, fox kits would have to be systematically hand-reared and human-socialized. Then they could be trained and tested for their ability and eagerness to respond to classic obedience commands. If the foxes don’t prove trainable, then perhaps domestication, even when compressed for efficiency, takes longer than one human lifetime and is more complicated than merely selecting for a single behavioral trait. Or perhaps the dog’s ancestor possessed something unique in its genes that gave rise to our closest companion, something that can’t be replicated in the fox just because it’s a social canid. The point is, we won’t know until Belyaev’s experiment is finished. Unless the experiment is helped to reach its conclusion—to understand once and for all whether the foxes have achieved domesticity as Belyaev hoped—more than half a century of intellectual labor and the lives of more than 50,000 foxes will have been wasted.

    "Trut feels bad about the state of the farm and the plight of hundreds of foxes moaning and chattering for attention from their 3-foot wire cubes. On my last night in Siberia, over a meal of tsar’s hodgepodge—described in the menu as “grilled vegetables with secret sauce and garbage”—a man with his personal fifth of Beluga vodka tells me that getting by in Russia takes a lot of luck. I can’t help thinking those farm foxes need all the luck they can get. They’ve already surprised geneticists by suggesting that selection for a single behavioral trait can trigger “piggy-backing” changes in physiology and appearance, like increased levels of serotonin and piebald coats. There may be more surprises to come, but it will take a major infusion of cash, and a collaboration among scientists, adventurous dog trainers, and Lyudmila Trut to let Belyaev’s experiment—and eventually his foxes—out of the box."

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    Senior Member begemot's Avatar
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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    I have mixed feelings about the experiment. On one hand, we've learned some really interesting stuff. And the original foxes were saved from fur farms. But on the other hand, they are clearly living impoverished, undersocialized lives in tiny cages with minimal interaction. And those are the lucky ones. Thousands of foxes have been "culled." And apparently hundreds are sold back to fur farms each year, which is horrible.

    I partly wish the experiment could continue, since one of the future goals is to start treating them more like dogs -- raised in homes, socialized better. And I think there is certainly more to learn about genetics from this. But on the other hand, if it means more genetically-tame foxes being bred, then sent to fur farms to live and die horribly, maybe it would be better if it just ended now. Though all the current foxes would be doomed.

    I feel like if these were dogs, people would be up in arms about their treatment. But if they are domesticated, shouldn't people feel the same way about them? (Though, personally, I would feel the same outrage even if they weren't domesticated, just as I do about fur farms.)

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Just wondering whether anyone got a chance to read it, and has thoughts.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Well, I think part of the reason that there's not more interest in them as pets is because they have a $5000+ price tag. It's too bad they can't seem to move forward with this experiment and that the foxes are still housed as they would be at a fur farm. I can see how it would be hard to care for so many foxes both in terms of time and expense, so much that it would make it hard to move forward and raise and train them like pets.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Aww she looks so sad!
    Im gonna eat you!

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Let it get shut down. They need to stop this.
    I really have zero interest in a project that keeps hundreds upon hundreds of foxes in tiny, wire floored cages. I watched a dog documentary that featured this place, and the woman had said something about 'some of them were frightened, some where aggressive.' which is horsebull. They're ALL frightened.
    They're kept in crappy conditions, fed crappy food, and only get out to be bred. Every now and then they'll take one out to show it off.
    Why are they doing this? To prove enough selective breeding can turn a wild animal tame? Well gee, I have no idea. I mean, dogs and horses and livestock, and bunnies and rats and othersandothersandothers are domesticated. I can't imagine why. So, in order to prove something that's already been proven, they're raising foxes that end up being killed, sold as pets -which hardly turns out good in the end- or sent to fur farms? Alrighty then.
    Doesn't it hurt their hearts knowing that they're raising something that can feel attachment and emotion for them, only to be sent off to die? I think I would hate myself.

    Honestly, I think they should be completely shut down, as many foxes rescues as possible and not be allowed to do this again. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if they were kept in better conditions, if they weren't being bred in the mass numbers they are, and weren't being born to die... They can't care for the foxes they have, yet they continue to breed more? No logic or heart in that.
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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by HollowHeaven View Post
    Why are they doing this? To prove enough selective breeding can turn a wild animal tame?
    If you read the article, you'd know what they are trying to do. The goal was/is to identify the gene/gene mutations in wild versus domesticated animals.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    From the brink of extinction to world domination.
    I welcome our new Shiba overlords.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Why are they doing this? To prove enough selective breeding can turn a wild animal tame?
    If you read the article, you'd know what they are trying to do. The goal was/is to identify the gene/gene mutations in wild versus domesticated animals.
    This is what I found most interesting in the article. They already knew that enough that selective breeding can tame an animal, they were trying to domesticate them. And they failed. It shows that domestication is a behavior that cannot be selected for without the animals developing in a proper symbiotic setting with humans. Presumably, it means that animal behavior is not dependant entirely on genes. This is a huge debate in evolutionary biology. Mutations might be more adapted to the environment than what Darwinian evolution suggest them to be (random replication errors). I find this fascinating.

    The ethics of it are complicated. My position will depend on the purpose for the experiment. My understanding is that the goal was to sell them as pets. The research was a byproduct of the business intended.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Even a tame fox makes a bad pet. They dig, are hyper, tear up belongings. Get a dog, don't breed down a wild animal so someone can brag about owning one.

    After years of wildlife rehab, many wild animals can be "tamed" by imprinting and raising. That does not make it right. I had an Arctic fox, which was kept as a pet, then released, in Tennessee. She was very friendly, but would nip and scratch, was not a house pet, so would have to he kept caged, as they are amazing escape artists, will climb, dig, chew, squeeze their way out of almost anything. Too tame to be introduced in the wild. Eventually she was moved to a sanctuary where she had problems associating with other foxes. She should have been left where she belonged to begin with.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by juliemule View Post
    She should have been left where she belonged to begin with.
    Even if the cause is genetic research?

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    The research was not a by product of the business. And to see it descend into hard times to the point where they are trying scrape by in such ways...is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by begemot View Post
    <snip>
    I feel like if these were dogs, people would be up in arms about their treatment. But if they are domesticated, shouldn't people feel the same way about them? (Though, personally, I would feel the same outrage even if they weren't domesticated, just as I do about fur farms.)
    Here in the US or in Western Europe I completely agree with you ... in Russia though? Not so much. Their view of animals are quite different from ours and we also should remember that if these foxes weren't participating in the research they (or other descendants of the original foxes) would be on a fox farm and used for coats and other clothing.
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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    The ethics of it are complicated. My position will depend on the purpose for the experiment. My understanding is that the goal was to sell them as pets.
    The goal was originally to create a tamer fox for fur farmers to handle. But because the domesticated foxes developed new markings (spots, blazes, etc) it 'ruined' them for the fur market, so instead the lab continued them for pure science's sake.

    The reason they sell some of them is literally because they've been losing money doing this ever since the USSR collapsed. There is barely any demand for these tame foxes, and they don't make any profit by selling them even with the $5k pricetag.
    Last edited by Pai; 03-17-2012 at 09:21 PM.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by HollowHeaven View Post
    Let it get shut down. They need to stop this.
    I really have zero interest in a project that keeps hundreds upon hundreds of foxes in tiny, wire floored cages. I watched a dog documentary that featured this place, and the woman had said something about 'some of them were frightened, some where aggressive.' which is horsebull. They're ALL frightened.
    They're kept in crappy conditions, fed crappy food, and only get out to be bred. Every now and then they'll take one out to show it off.
    Why are they doing this? To prove enough selective breeding can turn a wild animal tame? Well gee, I have no idea. I mean, dogs and horses and livestock, and bunnies and rats and othersandothersandothers are domesticated. I can't imagine why. So, in order to prove something that's already been proven, they're raising foxes that end up being killed, sold as pets -which hardly turns out good in the end- or sent to fur farms? Alrighty then.
    Doesn't it hurt their hearts knowing that they're raising something that can feel attachment and emotion for them, only to be sent off to die? I think I would hate myself.

    Honestly, I think they should be completely shut down, as many foxes rescues as possible and not be allowed to do this again. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if they were kept in better conditions, if they weren't being bred in the mass numbers they are, and weren't being born to die... They can't care for the foxes they have, yet they continue to breed more? No logic or heart in that.
    HollowHeaven, I agree with you, and it hurts to think about them living and dying as they do.

    The one thing I want to point out though, is that there was some scientific merit to what they learned. Of course it stands to reason that you can select for tameness, that's obvious. But where it gets interesting is all the genetic "baggage" that came with it. The coat changes are really just the tip of the iceberg.

    But as I've been thinking about this a lot for the last few days, the scientifically interesting parts aren't what sticks with me. It's thinking of them living in those horrid little cubes, waiting to be put down -- or skinned alive. So I agree with you. Anything that was learned just isn't worth it. I hope the experiment ends.

    Quote Originally Posted by perrodeapeso View Post
    This is what I found most interesting in the article. They already knew that enough that selective breeding can tame an animal, they were trying to domesticate them. And they failed. It shows that domestication is a behavior that cannot be selected for without the animals developing in a proper symbiotic setting with humans. Presumably, it means that animal behavior is not dependant entirely on genes.
    Oh, I think it's completely accepted that environment is integral as well as genetics. Is that what you mean? I think the goal of domestication failed because they haven't had the resources to raise the foxes in home settings.

    Actually, it's kind of a big question mark for me what their current foxes would be like if they were raised from day one in homes, with intensive human interactions, the way people have done in experiments with infant gray wolves. In the wolf experiments, even with intense 24/7 socialization one on one with an assigned raiser, there are huge behavioral differences that are measurable almost right away.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by begemot View Post
    Oh, I think it's completely accepted that environment is integral as well as genetics. Is that what you mean? I think the goal of domestication failed because they haven't had the resources to raise the foxes in home settings.

    Actually, it's kind of a big question mark for me what their current foxes would be like if they were raised from day one in homes, with intensive human interactions, the way people have done in experiments with infant gray wolves. In the wolf experiments, even with intense 24/7 socialization one on one with an assigned raiser, there are huge behavioral differences that are measurable almost right away.
    The debate is not about the environment being a factor or not, it is about how it plays its part. If mutations are random or adapted. Affirming the latter implies a mechanism between environment and DNA, which is not obvious.

    My guess is that proper home settings would have made a difference in the foxes, but not yet domestication. Hand reared wolves are not domesticated. The proper setting of domestication requires the wild animal benefiting from human interaction and voluntarily looking for human contact, not just being forced next to them.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    I wish they would sell some of these foxes to people in other countries without requiring them be neutered first. Let others continue the breeding program -- require them to do so responsibly, make them sign restrictive contracts, whatever, just let them continue breeding. I think there's still a lot to learn from these foxes, and it would be very interesting to see how they'd fare if they were raised more like pet dogs, in people's homes.

    I am also sure there would be much higher demand for these animals, even altered, if the price tag were even just half of what it is now. Many people pay $2k for a dog. But $5k+ seems crazy even to those people.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by perrodeapeso View Post
    Even if the cause is genetic research?
    No matter what the cause is. If they can't figure a way to humanely keep and treat the animals I don't feel that the research should be done.

    A fox would make a good pet, just like a wolf would. They have wild tendencies that are not going to go away for many many generations. So you then have people buying into that to discover they can't care for them, and rescues become over run. Leave them be wild.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by perrodeapeso View Post
    The proper setting of domestication requires the wild animal benefiting from human interaction and voluntarily looking for human contact, not just being forced next to them.
    Part of what's interesting about the foxes is that they do seek and enjoy human contact. I think I'm not totally sure what you mean by "domesticated." Isn't it kind of subjective? If it's defined just by a animal benefiting from or enjoying human interaction, I think that would include a lot of animals. Including, arguably, hand-raised wolves, to some degree (not like dogs though, and I don't believe it's in their best interests to do this). I think when I use the word "domesticated" I mean compatible with human living arrangements. So for a fox, that would mean that they could be reliably house-trained, for instance.

    "Domestication" just seems like this really amorphous, poorly defined constellation of traits. Kind of like when people talk about wanting "loyalty" in a dog, which always confuses and irks me.

    Can you quantify what you mean when you use this word?

    The debate is not about the environment being a factor or not, it is about how it plays its part. If mutations are random or adapted. Affirming the latter implies a mechanism between environment and DNA, which is not obvious.
    I don't understand what you mean. Can you explain it? I think the mechanism between environment and genetics is human selection. We shape genetics through selective breeding. And what's interesting are the unselected, parallel traits that "piggyback" along in with the things we select for.
    Last edited by begemot; 03-18-2012 at 01:03 PM.

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    Re: Article about the famous russian fox domestication experiment "in peril"

    Quote Originally Posted by begemot View Post
    Part of what's interesting about the foxes is that they do seek and enjoy human contact. I think I'm not totally sure what you mean by "domesticated." Isn't it kind of subjective? If it's defined just by a animal benefiting from or enjoying human interaction, I think that would include a lot of animals. Including, arguably, hand-raised wolves, to some degree (not like dogs though, and I don't believe it's in their best interests to do this). I think when I use the word "domesticated" I mean compatible with human living arrangements. So for a fox, that would mean that they could be reliably house-trained, for instance.

    "Domestication" just seems like this really amorphous, poorly defined constellation of traits. Kind of like when people talk about wanting "loyalty" in a dog, which always confuses and irks me.

    Can you quantify what you mean when you use this word?
    Domestication goes beyond house training. Check out this video
    It specifies traits of domestication.

    I don't understand what you mean. Can you explain it? I think the mechanism between environment and genetics is human selection. We shape genetics through selective breeding.
    I mean that it would be interesting to see if a 'domestication' mutation naturally happens by selectively breeding tame foxes or not. We can only select and shape genetics if the genes are already there, but we cannot create them. We are not going to have purple dogs if purple dogs don't happen naturally. Same with domesticated foxes, arguably the reason for failure was that the genes that determine domestication are not/could not be random (naturally occurring). If a symbiotic setting is required for domestication it implies a relation between the DNA, and the environment. Somehow, the DNA would make proper beneficial mutations.

    Maybe an example will make it clear. If we were to introduce red foxes to the arctic would we have to wait for a random mutation and natural selection to see a full population of white coated foxes, or would we start observing a higher incidence of white fur foxes, faster than what the mechanisms of speciation suggest?

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