Taming the Wild

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

National Geographic Magazine‘s recent Taming the Wild piece discussed the famous Siberian silver fox experiment:

Miraculously, Belyaev had compressed thousands of years of domestication into a few years. But he wasn’t just looking to prove he could create friendly foxes. He had a hunch that he could use them to unlock domestication’s molecular mysteries. Domesticated animals are known to share a common set of characteristics, a fact documented by Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. They tend to be smaller, with floppier ears and curlier tails than their untamed progenitors. Such traits tend to make animals appear appealingly juvenile to humans. Their coats are sometimes spotted — piebald, in scientific terminology — while their wild ancestors’ coats are solid. These and other traits, sometimes referred to as the domestication phenotype, exist in varying degrees across a remarkably wide range of species, from dogs, pigs, and cows to some nonmammalians like chickens, and even a few fish.

Belyaev suspected that as the foxes became domesticated, they too might begin to show aspects of a domestication phenotype. He was right again: Selecting which foxes to breed based solely on how well they got along with humans seemed to alter their physical appearance along with their dispositions. After only nine generations, the researchers recorded fox kits born with floppier ears. Piebald patterns appeared on their coats. By this time the foxes were already whining and wagging their tails in response to a human presence, behaviors never seen in wild foxes.

Driving those changes, Belyaev postulated, was a collection of genes that conferred a propensity to tameness — a genotype that the foxes perhaps shared with any species that could be domesticated.

In 2009, UCLA biologist Robert Wayne led a study comparing the wolf and dog genomes — with much larger implications:

The finding that made headlines was that dogs originated from gray wolves not in East Asia, as other researchers had argued, but in the Middle East. Less noticed by the press was a brief aside in which Wayne and his colleagues identified a particular short DNA sequence, located near a gene called WBSCR17, that was very different in the two species. That region of the genome, they suggested, could be a potential target for “genes that are important in the early domestication of dogs.” In humans, the researchers went on to note, WBSCR17 is at least partly responsible for a rare genetic disorder called Williams-Beuren syndrome. Williams-Beuren is characterized by elfin features, a shortened nose bridge, and “exceptional gregariousness”—its sufferers are often overly friendly and trusting of strangers.

After the paper was published, Wayne says, “the number one email we got was from parents of children suffering from Williams-Beuren. They said, Actually our children remind us of dogs in terms of their ability to read behavior and their lack of social barriers in their behavior.” The elfin traits also seemed to correspond to aspects of the domestication phenotype. Wayne cautions against making one-to-one parallels between domestication genes and something as genetically complex as Williams-Beuren. The researchers are “intrigued,” he says, and hoping to explore the connection further.

That bit about Williams Syndrome was news to me. I’d say elfin is a bit euphemistic.


  1. Retardo says:

    It’s funny that the tame, face-licking fox Maverik is named after John McCain.

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