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We have a new paper out today in @Trends_Ecol_Evo (open access). "The History of Farm Foxes Undermines the Animal Domestication Syndrome" @Greger_Larson @UMassMedical @broadinstitute @karlssonlab sciencedirect.com/science/articl…
It all started with an unplanned visit to a museum on Prince Edward Island by the late Dr. Raymond Coppinger, and ended with us questioning a widely accepted theory known as the domestication syndrome. @culturesside
The (animal) domestication syndrome is the idea that, when an animal species is domesticated, a suite of changes in behavior and appearance all occur together. It was first described by none other than Charles Darwin.
The theory is well known and widely accepted. We (the four authors) had all cited domestication syndrome in our own work.
How did domestication syndrome become so widely accepted? Largely bc of the Russian Farm-Fox project. Starting with “wild” foxes, and selecting on tameness, scientists reported producing foxes with a suite of domestication syndrome characteristics in a surprisingly short time.
This seemed to prove a causal between the traits, without the messiness of “real world” domestication.
But, when Ray visited the International Fox Museum on Prince Edward Island, he discovered photos of remarkably friendly, white-spotted foxes dating to the early 1900s. Decades before the Russian Farm-Fox project started.
We dug into the literature. We googled. We even went to the library (some of these records were quite old) books.google.com/books?id=rZtaA…
We knew that the Russian Farm-Fox project started with foxes from Russian fur farms. But where did the farm foxes come from? Prince Edward Island in Canada! In 1928, a fox farmer named Leo Frank shipped 130 foxes to Russia to establish a Russian fur-farm industry.
The caption on this 1922 photo reads ‘Showing Dr. Leo Frank holding a domesticated Silver black fox in his arms. Rosbank fur farm Ltd. Southport, P. E. Island’. Image from Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside.
PEI farm foxes were renowned for their friendliness and highly prized. In 1913, breeding pairs sold for equivalent of $500,000 today
Both tame behavior and other domestication syndrome traits predated the Russian Farm-Fox experiment. Because of tiny population sizes (genetic drift!) and selection for both behavior and appearance, the experiment is not a clear validation of the domestication syndrome.
We then tried to find evidence for the domestication syndrome in other species and struck out again. In dogs, cats, pigs, goats, rats and mice, we found almost no published data (definition of “data”? ANY kind of numbers). What we did find was rarely definitive.
Our conclusion? The domestication syndrome might exist. We don’t know. The data just isn’t there. Lots more research is needed.
But maybe, instead, we should focus on how each species is adapting, in its own unique way, to live near, and even with, humans. We have an outsized impact on this planet. A small number of species are totally comfortable with that. Countless others are struggling to adapt.
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