Scientists are studying the effects of domestication on foxes’ brains and in particular their levels of oxytocin.
Studies have shown that oxytocin nurtures protective behaviour, empathy and feelings of love, and it could play a key role in rendering foxes better pets.
But the experiment might also offer a window into human evolution — in particular an existing theory that our human ancestors domesticated themselves
Sergei Abramov and his wife Tatiana have a furry pet, Plombir who wags her tail and wins treats for obeying his owners’ commands.
Plombir is actually a fox, bred by Russian scientists as part of a decades-long experiment in Siberia to study how wild animals are domesticated.
Plombir is happy to be led around by his owners on a leash, but, as he pulls towards chickens safe in their cage, it’s clear he hasn’t lost all his animal instincts.
“Yes, he already tried to eat our chickens and run away,” says Abramov, 32, who lives in the suburbs of Russia’s third largest city Novosibirsk.
His wife, biologist Tatiana Abramova, 33, admits she always wanted to live with a fox.
She concedes that Plombir is “friendly and kind” but not very obedient.
“He jumps on tables, or jumps inside the fridge. He steals things and hides them,” she says.
He enjoys being stroked, he can do tricks and is always eager to play — unlikely characteristics for most foxes, but not surprising given that he and his ancestors were bred by scientists to be friendly pets.
In 1959, Soviet geneticists Dmitry Belyaev and Ludmila Trut launched the experiment on a farm in the Akademgorodok scientific research centre near Novosibirsk.
Their goal was to tame foxes and understand how these ancestors of wolves evolved into the loyal and loving dogs we know now.
For decades, researchers at the farm have selected the most friendly animals for breeding. Others were put down and a small number were sold as pets.
This artificial selection “changes everything in their body”, said Yuri Gerbek, one of around 15 scientists working at the centre that is home to almost 1,000 foxes.
In particular, this rigid selection has altered foxes’ pigment and shortened their muzzles.
“We are trying to understand which genes change and how they change,” Gerbek explained.
He added that the team keeps wild as well as tamed foxes “for comparison”. Yet due to a lack of funding, the animals are kept in old and rusting cages.