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Tucked away in Siberia, there are furry, four-legged creatures with wagging tails and floppy ears that are as docile and friendly as any lapdog. But, despite appearances, these are not dogs – they are foxes. They are the result of the most astonishing experiment in breeding ever undertaken – imagine speeding up thousands of years of evolution into a few decades. In 1959, biologists Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut set out to do just that, by starting with a few dozen silver foxes from fox farms in the USSR and attempting to recreate the evolution of wolves into dogs in real time in order to witness the process of domestication. This is the extraordinary, untold story of this remarkable undertaking.
Most accounts of the natural evolution of wolves place it over a span of about 15,000 years, but within a decade, Belyaev and Trut's fox breeding experiments had resulted in puppy-like foxes with floppy ears, piebald spots, and curly tails. Along with these physical changes came genetic and behavioral changes, as well. The foxes were bred using selection criteria for tameness, and with each generation, they became increasingly interested in human companionship. Trut has been there the whole time, and has been the lead scientist on this work since Belyaev's death in 1985, and with Lee Dugatkin, biologist and science writer, she tells the story of the adventure, science, politics, and love behind it all. In How to Tame a Fox, Dugatkin and Trut take us inside this path-breaking experiment in the midst of the brutal winters of Siberia to reveal how scientific history is made and continues to be made today.
To date, fifty-six generations of foxes have been domesticated, and we continue to learn significant lessons from them about the genetic and behavioral evolution of domesticated animals. How to Tame a Fox offers an incredible tale of scientists at work, while also celebrating the deep attachments that have brought humans and animals together throughout time.
Read an extended review on our blog.
Prologue: Why Can’t a Fox Be More like a Dog?
1: A Bold Idea
2: Fire-Breathing Dragons No More
3: Ember’s Tail
5: Happy Family
6: Delicate Interactions
7: The Word and Its Meaning
8: An SOS
9: Clever as a Fox
10: The Commotion in the Genes
Lee Alan Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the department of biology at the University of Louisville. His books include The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness and Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.
Lyudmila Trut is a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. She has been the lead researcher on the silver fox domestication experiment since 1959.
"Our furry companions evidently descended from wild wolves – resulting from thousands of years of human selection. Nearly 60 years ago Russian researchers Trut and Dmitri Belyaev decided to domesticate wild foxes to learn in detail how the journey from wild beast to household pet happens. They set up their experiment on a farm in Siberia and over the following decades mated the tamest animals from each successive generation. In this book, biologist and science writer Dugatkin and Trut recount this grand experiment. The result: a host of docile foxes and the identification of the genetic underpinnings for their domestication."
– Scientific American
"Can new kinds of animals be brought into being outside of DNA tinkering and Frankensteining? Most certainly, as a long-running Russian experiment reveals [...] The science is profound, but the authors write accessibly and engagingly – and their vulpine subjects are awfully cute, too. Of compelling interest to any animal lover and especially to devotees of canids of all kinds."
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"This intriguing, well-written account of an ongoing experiment in canid domestication should delight readers interested in the origins of the human-animal bond."
– Library Journal
"In the first book on the famous 'Siberian fox study,' this extraordinary chronicle recounts one of the world's most important animal studies. It has not only provided stunning insights into how domestication works and how fast it can happen. It also helps us understand the origins of our deepest non-human bonds – our friendships with our dogs – and where and how they came into being."
– Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
"Over the course of decades, Russian scientists transformed wild foxes into friendly pets. They used no science-fiction genetic engineering. They simply guided evolution. This landmark experiment tells us some profound things about domestication, behavior, and ourselves. Finally, someone has written a book-length account of the experience – and a fascinating one at that."
– Carl Zimmer, author of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
"Dugatkin and Trut have collaborated to produce a well-written and engaging account of one the most influential biological studies ever: the fox farm experiment. Over sixty years ago, a Russian geneticist dared to start an experiment to see if foxes could be domesticated and what variables contributed to the changes domestication brought. The courage involved in starting such an experiment in the USSR of the 1950s was remarkable; the dedication and curiosity that have kept it going ever since have led to stunning new insights on the mechanisms of domestication. Every biologist should read this book!"
– Pat Shipman, author of The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
"An excellent book. The writing is clear and makes for fascinating popular science. This book will attract a wide audience, and I know of none other with such a dramatic combination of good science and social history."
– Aubrey Manning, coauthor of An Introduction to Animal Behaviour