Trait Selection and Domestication

The front cover of this month’s National Geographic pictures a fox and the teaser line, “designing the perfect pet.” The opening paragraph tells the reader of two Russian brothers, Nikolay and Dmitry Belyaev, in the mid-20th century who risked their lives and their careers to continue research on genetics when it has been outlawed by Joseph Stalin. For Nikolay, the price he paid was his life. Dmitry only lost his job as director of the Department of Fur Breeding, but he secretly continued his quest, consumed with the question, how did such a diversity of dogs result from man’s relationship with the wolf?

To study the answer, Dmitry Belyaev chose to reproduce history himself, and he selected the silver fox, a cousin of the dog that had never been domesticated, as his subject. National Geographic outlines his work, the politics, the struggles, the findings, and in an interesting read, lets us know that the answers are far from easy. His work continues in Russia today- 53 years after he obtained his first generation of silver foxes. The answer is; it’s complicated.

Over the generations, the foxes in Belyaev’s study changed more than their attitudes towards humans, they changed their appearance as well. It seems that the genetics in silver foxes linked with ”Tameness” , are also linked with floppy ears and white body spots called piebald. Of course there is more research occurring on the subject of domestication than just the fox project in Russia- Leif Andersson (a fellow Swede!) studies genetics of farm animals. Andersson believes that human selection for “cute” traits were allowed to persists just because humans liked them. These traits, which may have just been random mutations, may have been detrimental to a wild animal and therefore would have been weeded out. He feels that humans have a greater role in selection. Personally, I tend to agree with Andersson. How else can we explain a Pug?

I highly recommend reading this article in full. Click Here to read it. The practical question that I have to answer with each generation is how do I select for the whole package- a sheltie that retains it’s appearance as a sheltie, but “improves” in one area without causing undesirable changes in another. Maybe we breeders and these researchers share some genetic traits that cause us to seek the answers, while the other side of the coin, the “anti-breeders” share a different set of genetic traits. Maybe there is a genetic propensity to understand one’s role in shaping who we are - and it is in direct opposition to those who fear the answers. Maybe genetic research and experimentation is just in my genes.

Adirondog  – (March 7, 2011 at 8:53:00 AM PST)  

I met one of those foxes. Very friendly, not very cute.

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