Russian Domesticated Red Fox

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Russian domesticated red fox
Silberfuchs 08.jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canidae
Genus: Vulpes
Species: V. vulpes
Binomial name
Vulpes vulpes

The Russian domesticated red fox is a domesticated form of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). As a result of selective breeding, the new foxes became tamer and more dog-like.

The result of over 50 years of experiments in the Soviet Union and Russia, the breeding project was set up in 1959 by Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyayev.[1] It continues today at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk, under the supervision of Lyudmila Trut.[2][3]

Genetic experimentation[edit]

Initial premise and hypothesis[edit]

The experiment was initiated by scientists who were interested in the topic of domestication and the process by which wolves became domesticated dogs. They saw some retention of juvenile traits by adult dogs, both morphological ones, such as skulls that were unusually broad for their length, and behavioral ones, such as whining, barking, and submission.

In a time when centralized political control in the fields of genetics and agriculture promoted Lysenkoism as an official state doctrine, Belyayev's commitment to classical genetics had cost him his job as head of the Department of Fur Animal Breeding at the Central Research Laboratory of Fur Breeding in Moscow in 1948.[4] During the 1950s, he continued to conduct genetic research under the guise of studying animal physiology.

Belyayev believed that the key factor selected for in the domestication of dogs was not size or fertility, but behavior: specifically, tameability. Since behavior is rooted in biology, selecting for tameness and against aggression means selecting for physiological changes in the systems that govern the body's hormones and neurochemicals.


Belyayev decided to test his theory by domesticating foxes, in particular, the silver fox, a dark color form of the red fox. He placed a population of them under strong selection pressure for inherent tameness.[5] According to Trut:

The least domesticated foxes, those that flee from experimenters or bite when stroked or handled, are assigned to Class III. Foxes in Class II let themselves be petted and handled but show no emotionally friendly response to experimenters. Foxes in Class I are friendly toward experimenters, wagging their tails and whining. In the sixth generation bred for tameness we had to add an even higher-scoring category. Members of Class IE, the "domesticated elite", are eager to establish human contact, whimpering to attract attention and sniffing and licking experimenters like dogs. They start displaying this kind of behavior before they are one month old. By the tenth generation, 18 percent of fox pups were elite; by the 20th, the figure had reached 35 percent. Today elite foxes make up 70 to 80 percent of our experimentally selected population.[1]

Belyayev and Trut believed that selecting for tameness mimics the natural selection that must have occurred in the ancestral past of dogs, and, more than any other quality, must have determined how well an animal would adapt to life among humans.


Russian scientists achieved a population of domesticated foxes that are fundamentally different in temperament and behavior from their wild forebears. Some important changes in physiology and morphology became visible, such as mottled or spotted colored fur. Many scientists[citation needed] believe that these changes obtaining from selection for tameness are caused by lower adrenaline production in the new population, causing physiological changes within relatively few generations yielding genetic combinations not present in the original species. This indicates that selection for tameness (i.e., low flight distance) produces changes that are related to the emergence of other dog-like traits, e.g. raised tail and coming into heat every six months rather than annually. These seemingly unrelated changes are a result of pleiotropy.[citation needed]

The project also bred the least-tameable foxes to study social behavior in canids. These foxes avoided human contact as do their wild behavioral phenotypes.[6]

Similar research was carried out in Denmark with American mink.[7]

Current project status[edit]

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the project has run into serious financial problems. In 1996, there were 700 domesticated foxes, but, in 1998, without enough funds for food and salaries, the number had to be reduced to 100.[citation needed] Most of the project expenses are covered by selling the foxes as pets, but the project remains in a difficult situation and is looking for new sources of revenue from outside sources. In 2014, officials stated that the number of foxes was never reduced and is still stable at about 2,000.[8] As of August 2016, there are 270 tame vixens and 70 tame males on the farm.[9]

In another study published in Behavior Genetics,[10] a system of measuring fox behavior was described that is expected to be useful in QTL mapping to explore the genetic basis of tame and aggressive behavior in foxes.


Russian domesticated foxes exhibit a variety of coat colors, including red, silver (black), platinum, cross, and Georgian White, the lattermost being a color exclusive to the Russian breeding project.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Trut, Lyudmila (1999). "Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment". American Scientist. 87 (2): 160. doi:10.1511/1999.2.160. Archived from the original on 2011-06-23. 
  2. ^ "Domestication of foxes and problems of modern animal breeding | Institute of Cytology and Genetics". Retrieved 2016-07-05. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Ratliff, Evan (March 2011). "Animal Domestication: Taming the Wild". National Geographic. p. 2. Archived from the original on 2015-11-22. 
  5. ^ Adams, Jill U. (2008). "Genetics of Dog Breeding". Nature Education. 1 (1). Archived from the original on 2008-10-19. 
  6. ^ Trut, Lyudmila N.; Oskina, Irina N.; Kharlamova, Anastasiya V. (2012). "Experimental Studies of Early Canid Domestication". In Ostrander, Elaine A.; Ruvinsky, Anatoly. Genetics of the Dog (2nd ed.). CAB International. pp. 12–37. Retrieved 2016-01-12. 
  7. ^ Price, Edward (2008). Principles and Applications of Domestic Animal Behavior. Cambridge University Press. p. 229. Retrieved 2016-01-07. 
  8. ^ "Конец Эксперимента. Ученые Уничтожают Ручных Лисиц и Норок" [The End of an Experiment: Scientists Kill Domesticated Foxes and Minks]. (in Russian). 
  9. ^ BBC Earth, 13 september 2016
  10. ^ Kukekova, Anna V.; Trut, L. N.; et al. (2007). "Measurement of Segregating Behaviors in Experimental Silver Fox Pedigrees". Behavior Genetics. 38 (2): 185–94. doi:10.1007/s10519-007-9180-1. PMC 2374754Freely accessible. PMID 18030612. 

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