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Foxes – man’s (new) best friend?

FOXES HAVE the potential to become man's new best friend, say scientists at a Russian fur farm who have spent 45 years breeding tame foxes. The result of the programme is a population of foxes that wag their tails, greet humans with excited barks and look appealing.

Unlike the all-black silver foxes - a form of the common European red fox – the tame ones have patches of white fur on their heads, legs and tails. Some have curly tails and their faces are rounder than those of wild foxes, all as a result of selective breeding over numerous generations.

The foxes, bred on a Siberian fur farm since 1959 not only look like dogs, they act like them in their ability to read someone's face for visual cues on what they are expected to do. Dogs, domesticated from wolves more than 10,000 years ago, are among the few animals with enough ‘social intelligence’ to follow the visual instructions shown in the expression of a face or movements of a hand. They also showed less fear of novelty than their wild relatives, for are naturally cautious.

In a study in the journal Current Biology, Brian Hare of Harvard University, and Lyudmilla Trut of the Russian Academy of Sciences, suggest the domesticated foxes may be more pliable human companions than many other pets such as cats.

The report says: ‘We show that fox kits [cubs] from an experimental population selectively bred over 45 years to approach humans fearlessly and non-aggressively (experimentally domesticated) are not only as skilful as dog puppies in using human gestures but are also more skilled than fox kits from a second, control population not bred for tame behaviour.’

The foxes in the study are the descendants of 100 vixens and 30 male foxes brought together in 1959 as a breeding colony on a Siberian research station in Novosibirsk. Dmitry Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, bred the foxes for tameness and lack of aggression to humans as part of a fur-farming project. Only those with the most gentle disposition were allowed to breed.

Mr Belyaev even identified a ‘domesticated elite’ called Class IE, eager to establish human contact, which whimpered to attract attention and sniffed and licked the hands of the scientists.

After many generations, and 45,000 foxes later, the scientists noted distinct differences between the selectively bred fox colony and their wild cousins. The foxes also looked different. Their coats developed white patches just like some dogs. Their muzzles became shorter and more puppy-like and in some, the ears became floppy and tails curly.

"Through genetic selection alone, our research group has created a population of tame foxes fundamentally different in temperament and behaviour from their wild forebears," Mr Trut said.

Biologists had thought the dog, the first animal to be domesticated, had come about by the selective breeding of wolf cubs for a variety of traits that would be useful to early man.

But the latest findings suggest selecting just one trait – tameness – may have been enough to produce a domesticated companion with a range of beneficial behaviours and cute looks.

Intelligence tests on the Siberian foxes have shown they can find hidden food by following the pointing gestures of humans, a feat that even chimps – our closest relatives - cannot perform.

Richard Byrne, of St Andrew’s University, said the study could overturn accepted theories about how dogs became domesticated from the wolf. ‘It raises as a real possibility of the very striking idea that the domestication of dogs owes a lot to linkage between genetic characters so that when dogs may have been selected for one thing, and one thing alone, we may have got a lot of other characteristics as well.’

It was also thought that wolves were relatively easy to tame because they were a pack animal and naturally obeyed orders from those higher in the pecking order. But the latest findings show that foxes, noted as solitary animals, can also be bred to read the communication gestures of humans.