Sunday, February 27, 2011

Foxy pets

Natural selection may be a dirty word for certain evolution deniers, but artificial selection - that is, the domestication and designing of animals (and crops) by people - has at least a 15,000-year history.

Take animals. Wolves were domesticated and turned into dogs 15,000 years ago in Asia. Between about 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, sheep, cows, goats, pigs and cats were domesticated, and the chicken came about 8,000 years ago. Somewhere between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago came the llama and alpaca, the horse, the dromedary and Bactrian camel, and the water buffalo and the yak. About 3,000 years ago in North America, Indians domesticated the turkey.

But people have failed to domesticate any other animal, of all the many thousands of species in the wild, ever since. Their genes won't let it happen. But, starting about 50 years ago, some Russians began domesticating the fox. I know better than to suggest a fox could ever replace a dog as man's best friend. But it just might join them. Early in the program, researchers in Siberia were surprised to find some foxes so doglike that they would leap into a person's arms and lick their faces.

The research isn't aimed at making pets, but at tracing the animals' genes. And it's tough work. Even today, much effort remains to tease apart behavior traits - fear, boldness, passivity and curiosity - into individual genes or sets of genes that actually make domestication possible. (Incidentally, the research involves not only selecting and breeding the "nicest" foxes, but also the meanest. These foxes, kept in a separate compound, would just as soon tear your head off.)

Among the mysteries remaining is how the nice foxes, which no longer would last long in the wild, also got smart. They can engage with people using social cues like pointing and eye movement. But most of all, like dogs, they really LIKE people. It's enough to get some reserchers wondering: How did the earliest pre-human hominids get domesticated?

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