Ferocious foxes and friendly foxes (a book review)

Last year was one of those really, really busy years. In addition to quite a bit of travel, I redesigned the undergraduate behavior analysis class that I teach. I learned a lot from the redesign process, but it ended up being a tremendously time-consuming project.

One thing that I didn’t spend enough time doing last year was reading for fun. I enjoy reading in the evenings. It’s a nice way to relax at the end of the day, and it gives me interesting things to think about.

A picture of the cover of the book How to tame a fox by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila TrutSo, one of my resolutions for 2018 is to do a bit more reading.

In January, I started reading two very different books about how to change aggressive behaviors. The first book, which I recently finished, is Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut’s fascinating book, How to Tame a Fox (And Build a Dog). The second book, which I just recently started, is Kellie Snider’s Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly: Using Constructional Aggression Treatment to Rehabilitate Aggressive and Reactive Dogs.

I’d like to share some of my thoughts about both of these books. But, this blog post is going to be all about the foxes, and I’ll write more about aggressive dogs and Constructional Aggression Treatment in a future post.

Can foxes be tamed?

How to Tame a Fox tells the story of a multi-decade Russian science experiment that investigated whether (and how fast) foxes could be domesticated by selecting the friendliest individuals in each new generation of cubs. The project, which began in the 1950s, has involved literally thousands of foxes. It is likely one of the largest and longest-lasting behavioral research projects with captive mammals. (And spoiler alert – it worked!)

I’ve known about the fox domestication project for a long time. My undergraduate degree is in biology, and we talked about the fox experiment at least a few times in my genetics classes. However, I knew very little about the finer details of the project, the people who were involved, and how the political climate affected the fox project (and other genetics research projects in Soviet Russia). So, when I first heard about this book, I was very interested in reading it.

In the book, Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut trace the story of the fox domestication project. You get to intimately know the main characters, both people and foxes. The second author of the book, Lyudmila Trut, has been the lead researcher on the project since 1959. So, she’s certainly an expert on the project!

I won’t spoil the book by sharing all of the details with you, but here are several more things that I found particularly interesting about the book.

A less than ideal setting

Russia was a bad place for geneticists in the beginning of the 20th century. Although I was previously somewhat familiar with the fox domestication project, I wasn’t familiar with how it was shaped and influenced by political forces in Russia.

When the project began, doing any sort of genetics research in Russia was banned. So, the man who started the project, Dmitri Belyaev, had to be careful. Very, very careful. (His older brother, also a geneticist, had been arrested and executed in the 1930s.)

When the project began in the 1950s, the Russians had thousands of captive foxes scattered throughout the country on government-owned fur farms. Dmitri had worked some with the foxes previously on government-related research. So, he was able to begin his domestication experiment by pretending that he was investigating how to produce better coat colors for the furs. Still, it was dangerous work.

Clues about domestication

Dmitri Belyaev was fascinated by domestication. He wondered how dogs and other animals could have been domesticated in the first place. Domestication changes a species in a multitude of different ways, both behaviorally and physiologically.

The foxes on the Russian fur farms, in general, behaved quite aggressively to the workers. When one of the workers approached a fox’s cage, the fox would usually come running up, snarling and snapping.

However, Dmitri had noticed variations in the behavior of the foxes. While some of them were extremely aggressive, some of the others were only mildly aggressive. The basic thesis of his experiment was this – if he only looked at how the foxes reacted to humans and selected the less aggressive individuals every year, would the foxes eventually become domesticated? In particular, he was curious to see if he only selected for behavioral characteristics, if he would also see all of the other physiological changes that usually happen when a species is domesticated.

One thing I enjoyed about the book was that it went generation by generation, telling stories about the foxes and also describing the changes that the researchers saw in the foxes and the significance of these observations. In particular, the book does a nice job relating the Russian fox domestication research to general theories of domestication and research about the domestication of dogs and other species. But, all of this is done in an easy to understand way.

More than just genes

The fox domestication experiment began as a genetics experiment. However, it became much more than that. Over the decades, the researchers have looked at a whole multitude of questions related to animal biology and behavior.

As someone who studies behavior, I found particularly interesting some of the work that was done to examine the effects of nature and nurture. For example, at one point when the foxes were fairly tame, the researchers switched things up. They planted some embryos from tame fox mothers into the bellies of aggressive foxes and, vice versa, placing some of the embryos from aggressive foxes into the bellies of tame foxes. (You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened!)

Lyudmila also lived for awhile in a house on the farm with a particularly friendly female fox, who gave birth while living in the house. Most interestingly, because these fox cubs were raised much differently than the typical foxes on the farm, they developed even more doglike behaviors than normal.

In conclusion

If you’re looking for a fascinating book about animal behavior, filled with memorable characters and stories, I highly recommend Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut’s book How to Tame a Fox.

In addition, I would also love to hear what you are reading currently!

Is there anything that you are reading now or that you have read recently that you really found interesting?

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