Monday, April 25, 2011

Domestication may have been quicker than we think...

There's an intriguing article in the March edition of National Geographic exploring the whole subject of the domestication of wild animals with lots of examples including chickens, pigs and sheep. The but that fascinated me, however, was the section about an experiment involving silver foxes that began in 1959. Researchers in Siberia bred foxes to encourage a single behaviour: friendliness towards humans. Over the next few generations the foxes behaved more and more like domesticated dogs. By the second generation aggressive response to humans began to disappear, by the fourth the kits (puppies) were wagging their tales and approaching humans voluntarily as well as allowing themselves to be carried and by the sixth generation they were completely accepting of humans and would lick them. Interestingly, from the 9th generation onwards the foxes began to change their outer appearance. That is to say their ears became floppier, their coats began to change colour, their tails started to curl and became shorter. These are all things that make dogs appear appealingly juvenile to humans. The researchers believe that some animals and not others carry genes that predispose them to be more easily domesticated. This sort of makes sense and explains why all sorts of animals have remained wild, while others have been successfully domesticated. The experiments suggest that it probably didn't take very long - perhaps as little as 20 years - for wild wolves to become tame dogs some 15,000 years ago.

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