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The process of turning wild wolves into loyal and friendly domestic dogs began well over 10,000 years ago—between 15,000 and 12,000, depending on which researcher you ask. Much more recently, however, scientists have managed to achieve domestication in about 60 years with a different canine—the fox. Adorable Instagram star Juniper fox is living proof that foxes can indeed be domesticated and can live happily alongside humans and other animals, admittedly with a lot of work. Studying the process of domestication scientifically has allowed us to examine how it works on a genetic level.

In a recent study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists analysed the genomes of red foxes and found that certain groups of genes indicated the difference between friendlier and more aggressive individuals. Many of these genes corresponded to genes found in previous studies looking into the domestication of dogs, indicating that researchers were on the right path. Helpfully, scientists could study foxes that had already been bred to have different behavioural traits, as geneticists have been studying foxes to learn about evolution since 1959 when Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev first started working with them to test his hypothesis that sociable behaviour and friendliness was genetically determined. Within ten generations of carefully selecting and breeding the friendliest individuals as well as the fiercest, Belyaev and his team produced two distinct lines of come-pet-me and don’t-mess-with-me foxes.  

His deliberate breeding of foxes provided later generations of researchers with convenient groups already bred for certain behaviours. After his death, scientists such as Anna Kukekova took over the study of his foxes by sequencing the genomes of Belyaev’s two lineages as well as a third group of foxes who had not been selected or bred for any behaviour characteristics. This study found many groups of genes that differed between the fox lineage, including several that corresponded to regions identified in studies of dogs. This overlap indicated that even between different species, the process of domestication focuses on similar clusters of genes.

For now, the identification of the genetic component behind domestication remains general rather than specific. Geneticist Elaine Ostrander explains the slow process in terms of zeroing in on an address; “before you get to the right house, you have to get to the right street. Before you can get to the right street, you have to get to the right city, state and so on.”

Students interested in applying for Biology or Natural Sciences might like to learn more about domestication as an evolutionary process and how researchers map genomes to study the progression of a species.  

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