Friendly fox genomes help us understand the genetics of behavior

Enlarge / Russian domesticated foxes (credit: Kingston Photography for the JAB Canid Education and Conservation Center )

Since 1959, a unique breeding experiment has been underway in southwestern Siberia. Its founder, Dmitry Belyaev, was intrigued by the characteristics of domestication, and he observed that foxes varied in their responses to humans—some fearful, some aggressive, and a few displaying “a quiet exploratory reaction without fear or aggression.” What would happen, he wondered, if you bred just the most chilled-out foxes?

Within a few generations of doing just this, remarkable transformations were underway. The foxes were calmer and friendlier when approached—and also more baby-faced, with floppy ears, patchy coloring, and curlier tails. This group of tame foxes, along with a second group bred for their aggression, have been transformational in our understanding of domestication.

And now, genetics have entered the mix. An international team of researchers have published an exploration of

genomes of the tame, aggressive, and wild foxes, looking for clues that could illuminate the link between genes and domestication. The results point to where in the genome the most interesting differences show up, and they may help to identify genes that could be illuminating to study in more detail.

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