Lyudmila Trut has a name that sounds like that of a Roald Dahl character, and rightly so, because she is part of the research team that has created a breed of ‘Fantastic Mr Foxes’. These tame foxes have been bred over several generations and are now docile enough to be kept as house pets, just like a cat or dog.
Begun by Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev in the 1950s, the study was first tried with silver-black foxes who were bred in captivity in fur farms. When the USSR was under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, genetic studies were officially banned, so the experiment had operate under the guise of creating better pelts for the fur industry.
Thirty males and one hundred females were chosen to start the experiment. Belyaev and his colleagues selected their breeding foxes by picking only those that did not respond with aggression or fear when their cages were opened. The litters that were born were hand fed and any of cubs that showed negative reactions to humans were removed from the programme i.e. turned into fur coats! Other than being fed, no other training or interaction was imposed on the experimental fox population, meaning that the chosen foxes (10%) were selected on purely genetic traits.
Belyaev’s project is now continued by his former intern, Trut. Today’s fully tame fox population has changed from their wild ancestors in more than just disposition. The foxes exhibit characteristics like those of dogs – behavioural (whimpering, licking and tail wagging) and physical (flopping ears, more rounded skulls and curving tails). Many of the morphological changes in the study population can be attributed to new levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as Serotonin. We had just better hope that they don’t breed them so clever that they start to devise ingenious tunnel-based plans to rob us of our chickens!
To keep the scientists’ work going, some foxes born as part of the study are now sold as pets to the US and the UK (where foxes can be legally kept as pets), however the study is still experiencing financial difficulties.
Those students applying to study Biology would be wise to look into the process of selective breeding to create domesticated animals. Future Historians should study the impact of politics on scientific research programmes. Pupils hoping to study Law might be interested in the legal side of unusual/exotic animal ownership.
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