A Summerside landmark has found itself at the centre of an international argument about a widely accepted scientific principle.
At stake is something called domestication syndrome.
The idea of domestication syndrome is that animals selectively bred to lose their natural fear of humans also tend to develop one or more similar physical characteristics like floppy ears, curled tails and spotted coats. One is considered directly linked to the other.
The concept was originally proposed by famed scientist Charles Darwin more than 140 years ago and was seemingly reinforced by something called the Russian Farm Fox Experiment.
But on a summer day in 2015, a visitor named Raymond Coppinger walked into Summerside’s International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame, located in the historic Armoury Building on Summer Street. Coppinger's visit touched off a series of events that recently had scientists around the world arguing about whether domestication syndrome really exists.
“Not only did the Prince Edward Island story really bring into question exactly what had happened in terms of the Russian project, but once you took foxes out of the picture there really wasn’t a whole lot of evidence for domestication syndrome anywhere else either,” said Elinor Karlsson, a colleague of Coppinger’s and a geneticist with the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard.
“So, all of sudden we were saying ‘Hey, guys, hold on. This thing that everybody is talking about as being a real thing – we’re not actually sure it’s a real thing.’”
Karlsson, along with colleagues Greger Larson, Coppinger and Kathryn Lord, recently published an opinion piece called The History of Farm Foxes Undermines Animal Domestication Syndrome in the publication Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
The piece, and the research that led to it, are the direct result of Coppinger’s visit to Summerside.
Coppinger, who has since died, was a biologist at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Inside the fox museum, he found photos and accounts of Islanders interacting with relatively tame and friendly red foxes in the early 1900s. Ranching foxes for their pelts was a hugely lucrative industry in the Summerside area from about 1910 to the 1930s and the secret of successfully breeding captive foxes was developed on P.E.I. by Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton.
Those pictures “blew his mind,” because they showed evidence of domesticated foxes, some sporting the tell-tale signs of what was believed to be domestication syndrome, decades before those traits showed up in the famous Russian program.
Did you know?
The Russian Farm-Fox Experiment:
- Started in the 1950s at Institute of Cytology and Genetics in the former Soviet Union
- Located in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Russia
- Used breeding stock from the Russian fur farming industry, which was started with specimens shipped from P.E.I.
- The goal was to study domestication by trying to reproduce the creation of the modern dog by selectively breeding red foxes
- After decades of breeding, foxes at the institute now exhibit dog-like behaviour including wagging their tails when they see humans and licking their handlers to show affection
The Russian Farm-Fox Experiment, founded by Dmitri Belyaev at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia, in the 1950s, was started with the goal of reproducing what early humans did to wolves which resulted in modern dogs. He wanted to selectively breed wild red foxes and make them more dog-like in temperament. The experiment is still ongoing today.
The story goes that Belyaev was able to produce human-friendly foxes, many showing signs of domestication syndrome, within 20 years or about 10 generations of selective breeding.
Belyaev was, reportedly, always upfront about the fact that he got his original experiment breeding stock from animals in the Russian fur industry, but the specimens were still labelled as “wild” stock.
But what if those original animals weren’t completely wild?
Subsequent research has shown that the original 65 pairs of foxes that started the Russian fox farming industry were purchased from P.E.I. in the 1920s.
The question becomes, said Karlsson, what impact did decades of selective breeding on P.E.I. have on the foxes before Belyaev even started his experiment?
Breeding in captivity is something that many species have trouble with. So P.E.I. ranchers who were trying to get the fur industry started would have naturally chosen foxes who were more relaxed around humans as their stock, said Karlsson.
Island breeders were also finding variations on the coats of their animals, including spotting and a number of other patterns. Some farmers here were actively breeding for unusual coat colourations and other attributes as a way of expanding their market.
“So (P.E.I. farmers) were actually kind of doing already the experiment that Belyaev thought he was starting in Russia – breeding for the friendliest foxes,” said Karlsson.
“It kind of disrupts that basic idea that we selected on the behaviour and we got changes in the way (foxes) looked, because (P.E.I. farmers) were actually doing both at the same time.”
The writers of the opinion piece contend that while the underlying principle of what Belyaev was trying to do is sound, his results were skewed because the animals he was using in his experiment were already genetically predisposed to have the traits he was trying to prove developed naturally thanks to domestication syndrome.
“They definitely did make (foxes) friendlier in Russia, they did do some behavioural selection. But our big thing is that by selecting on tameness we have no evidence that selection resulted in all of these other traits (like spots and floppy ears),” said Lord, a post-doctoral associate in Karlsson’s lab.
Five fox facts
- Red fox scientific name: “Vulpes vulpes”
- The average lifespan in the wild: three to six years
- Native across much of the Northern Hemisphere and introduced to Australia where it is considered a dangerous invasive species
- Generally live on edges of woodland, prairies and farmland but are also highly adaptable to living among human populations
- Males knowns as a “reynards” and females known as “vixens”
Fred Horne, archivist and collections co-ordinator with Culture Summerside, was in the fox museum the day Coppinger visited and remembers how intensely interested in the collection he was.
It’s fascinating to think that those early conversations in Summerside contributed to a more international dialogue, said Horne.
“It’s really cool to see that, hey, this stuff that was happening here was important, you know,” said Horne.
“It substantiates what we’re saying all the time, that the activity here had some importance and a lot of influence internationally as far as fox breeding is concerned.”
Reaction to the opinion piece from the scientific community has been somewhat mixed. Some scientists have said they are glad someone is finally taking a more critical look at Belyaev’s conclusions, but others have played down or dismissed the criticism.
“We get a range of reactions,” said Lord.
“Some people are really excited we’ve published this paper and others are not very happy with it – partly because some people rely on this domestication syndrome to do the work they do. So, if it doesn’t exist it complicates their work.”
As for who is right and what happens now – that will be up to scientists who study domestication and genetics to continue their research and test conclusions like Belyaev’s.
Who knows? Maybe someday people will be walking their pet red foxes along with their dogs.
If so, they just might have more than one Islander to thank for it.