Tied up with a leash, Lead he lies on caged chickens. This little black and white fox, the fruit of a long scientific experiment carried out in Siberia to domesticate his species, has not lost all his instincts.
“Yes, he has already tried to eat our chickens and run away”, says Sergei Abramov, 32, owner of Plombir. He lives with his wife Tatiana and their two children in the suburbs of Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia.
A year and a half ago, his family adopted this fox, born in a laboratory farm where, for 61 years, an exceptional experiment has been carried out to better understand the domestication of animals.
Tatiana Abramova (33 years old), a biologist by profession, affirms that she had always dreamed of living with a fox. His is caressed, paws and plays with his masters. He is “friendly” and “joker”.
But, nevertheless, he is not too obedient: “He jumps on the tables, he can open the refrigerator and get inside. He steals things and hides them everywhere ”.
It is impossible to have such an animal inside the house, so Plombir lives in a fairly large house built in the garden.
The origin of the dog
Still, this fox is far from being an ordinary animal. Both he and his ancestors were selected and raised to be social.
To understand this, one must go back to 1959, when this Soviet experiment officially began, by geneticists Dmitri Baliayev and Liudmila Trut, on a farm in Akademgorodok, Siberia’s pole of scientific excellence.
The first goal they set was to tame foxes to understand how the ancestor of wolves, another canid, evolved into a loyal and friendly dog. And see to what extent the genetic evolution of the species can be better understood from this domestication.
For 61 generations, scientists have chosen the friendliest foxes every year and have them breed with each other. The rest are slaughtered or sold – although not to many – as domestic animals.
This artificial selection “Totally changes your body”, says Yuri Guerbek, a member of the team, made up of about fifteen scientists. The farm they work on has almost 1,000 foxes.
“We try to understand which genes change and how they change,” adds Yuri Guerbek.
The experiment, of exceptional duration, has consequences on the physical characteristics of the foxes: their pigmentation is modified, their snouts are shortened …
Scientists compare the behavior of these trained foxes with that of others, aggressive and not domesticated, explains the expert.
But, as is often the case in Russia, the farm does not have sufficient means for maintenance, and the cages are rusty and some infrastructure very dilapidated.
After the death of Dmitri BeliayevIn 1985, the experiment was about to disappear with the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis of the 1990s.
But, in the end, it survived and even gained importance as new technologies, such as genetic sequencing techniques, represented a real window of opportunity for the “Beliayev foxes”.
“The interest of the international scientific community in this experiment continues to be very strong”, confirms to AFP Adam Wilkins, an American geneticist.
And even more so considering that the Russian team studies the changes caused by domestication in the brain of foxes but also the relationship between these changes and the levels of oxytocin, nicknamed “the hormone of love.”
Several studies suggest that the latter favors protective behaviors, empathy, and loving feelings. Thus, its secretion could play a key role in the domestication of the fox.
Trained foxes could also facilitate a better understanding of human evolution, based on the theory that humans domesticated themselves to survive and limit violence within the species.
This comparison “is pertinent, as many of the changes that domesticated foxes experience will resemble some changes in human evolution,” says Adam Wilkins, happy that “There are many things to discover”.