As It Happens

Century-old photos from P.E.I. debunk famous study on how foxes were tamed, says scientist

It was old photos at the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame on Prince Edward Island that first led researchers to question a famous study on the domestication of foxes.

Foxes from famous Russian study on domestication were from Prince Edward Island

Domesticated foxes in a pen at the Rosbank Fur Farms on Prince Edward Island. (Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside)


It was old photos at the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame on Prince Edward Island that first led researchers to question a famous study on the domestication of foxes. 

In the 1950s, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev started breeding foxes with the goal of domesticating them. Within 10 generations, he had succeeded. 

This was surprising. It was also surprising that his foxes had physically changed. 

They had white spotting, curly tails and floppy ears, just like dogs and pigs. He linked these traits to being a direct result of tameness — now known as domestication syndrome. 

"It was really surprising that you could create something as complicated as domestication or tame behaviour within something as short a time period as 10 generations," Elinor Karlsson, a genomic scientist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

 In fact, it appears the foxes Belyaev started from already may have been relatively tame. 

A trip to P.E.I.

Belyaev's theory was widely accepted. And then Karlsson's late colleague Raymond Coppinger, a biologist at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, stumbled upon a fox museum in Summerside, P.E.I. during a 2015 vacation.

"[He] wandered into the fox museum and saw pictures of these incredibly friendly, white-spotted foxes from decades before the Russian project had started," Karlsson said. 

The photos were taken at the Rosebank Fur Farms in 1922.

Karlsson said Belyaev had always been clear that he began his experiment with foxes from a fur farm. But what researchers hadn't realized was that the Russian fox industry had started with foxes shipped from P.E.I. 

A fox named Eblis at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, which Dmitry Belyayev directed until 1985. The original foxes were brought to Russia from a fur farm on Prince Edward Island. (Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images)

"[Belyaev's foxes] were actually foxes from exactly the same population of foxes that Ray was seeing pictures of at this fox museum," Karlsson said. 

These P.E.I. foxes — with their friendly demeanours and white spotting — called into question how realistic it was that Belyaev's foxes had developed these traits in just 10 generations. 

P.E.I. has a long history of farming foxes for fur, and Karlsson said farmers looked for certain traits in the foxes. Foxes that were more comfortable around humans were selected, as well as foxes that had interesting coats — like white spots. 

Karlsson said they even came across a magazine article from 1921 describing a P.E.I. fox fur industry big-wig walking two foxes on leashes, and girls doing the fox trot with those same foxes draped around their necks.

The scientists argued that while it's true that Belyaev's foxes did change their appearance and demeanour, it likely happened so quickly because farmers had started the process decades earlier. 

"There's no evidence that they're actually linked in a biological way," Karlsson said. 

The study was published Dec. 1 in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Foxes at the Rosebank Fur Farms on Prince Edward Island in 1922. (Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside)

Once the scientists discovered the history of Belyaev's foxes, they decided to look for data and research that supported domestication syndrome in other species. 

The problem was, they couldn't find anything. The theory of domestication syndrome has been around as long as Charles Darwin, but they say Belyaev's research was the only scientific validation. 

"It actually really surprised me as a scientist," Karlsson said.

Other scientists disagree with paper

The paper has mixed reviews within the scientific community. 

Anna Kukekova, a geneticist at the University of Illinois who researches the genetics of Russian foxes, told the New York Times that Belyaev recognized that fur farmers would have chosen animals comfortable with humans, but he described his foxes as wild animals. 

She also argued that the old photos from P.E.I. of friendly foxes are not scientific evidence, and there is no proof that these animals sought out human contact as they did in the case of Belyaev's foxes. 

"I completely understand their frustration with domestication syndrome," Kukekova told the Times, speaking about Karlsson and her colleagues. 

'[But] many aspects of the fox domestication experiment were not presented correctly."

Karlsson says she hopes her research will allow scientists to discover more about this population of foxes and domestication syndrome. 

"From my point of view, it actually is just as exciting because it opens up an opportunity to look at the experiment differently, take the data that we have now ... and ask questions that might be able to get at what's really going on," she said. 

She also plans to make a trip to P.E.I. 

"I've already been talking to my co-authors about how we clearly need to have a trip up to … visit the fox museum," she said. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Kate Swoger. 


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