How Soviet Scientist DK Belyaev Domesticated Wild Foxes!

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Statue: DK Belyaev and his Tame Fox (Novosibirsk, Siberia)

In 2017 (on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday), a statue was raised in modern Russia celebrating the genius of the Soviet trained scientist – Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev (Дмитрий Константинович Беляев) 1917-1985. I came across his research recently whilst reading an English language article regarding the interesting subject of the evolution of domestic dogs. Gemma Tarlach – author of this 2016 text entitled ‘The Discovery of Dogs’ states: 

‘First observed by Darwin but best chronicled in a 20th-century Soviet attempt to breed tame foxes, domestication syndrome covers a range of unintended physical traits that emerge as a wild species is selectively bred for more docile behavior. The changes include neoteny, where juvenile appearance is preserved into adulthood.’ 

During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), DK Belyaev volunteered for the Soviet Red Army (in July, 1941), joining the 4th Shock Army. This was a Soviet military formation comprised of the toughest and ideologically brightest Soviet men and women, who trained as hardened ‘frontline’ troops with the task of getting to grips with the barbaric Nazi German soldiers as they followed Hitler’s orders to destroy Soviet Socialism and eradicate the Slavic race throughout the USSR. Although joining as an ordinary Red Army soldier, the Soviet Authorities soon realised his outstanding intellectual abilities and he was soon promoted to senior assistant to the head of the Chemical Department of the 4th Shock Army.  

After the Soviet Victory, the Soviet State provided DK Belyaev with a first class education and he eventually became a renowned Soviet geneticist and respected academic of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1972. From 1959 to 1985 he was the Director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences in the USSR. DK Belyaev, however, is best known for his experiment in breeding domesticated foxes. The experiment lasted for several decades and was even referred to in the (bourgeois) New York Times as “perhaps the most outstanding experiment in the breeding of animals ever conducted.” (See – Wade, Nicholas . Maybe Rally , The New York Times (July 25, 2006).  

DK Belyaev participated in the develop of the breeding of highly productive varieties of agricultural plants, including the first Soviet radiation variety of wheat known as “Novosibirsk” wheat. He also worked on the development of methods to increase animal productivity, as well as designing drugs for the treatment of certain viral diseases. Western sources (and some modern Russian language sources) perpetuate the myth that the Soviet Authorities was using fox fur as currency and that DK Belyaev was tasked with taming foxes to make them easier to farm. This is an absurdity as this cruel exploitation of animals was looked down upon in the USSR, and certainly not encouraged. This disinformation probably arises from the idea that US Cold War rhetoric accused Communist countries of ‘brain-washing’ the working-class into accepting a supporting Socialism – and that the breakthrough of DK Belyaev just proved how corrupt (and sneaky) Soviet science actually was!  Obviously, this scenario is an invention of the Western (capitalist) imagination. DK Belyaev was far too clever and important an asset for the Soviet Authorities to waste his talents upon such trivial pursuits.  

In reality, DK Belyaev was given the objective of scientifically proving the evolutionary pathway that psychologically and physically transformed wild animals into their domesticated counter-parts. In other words, what where the behavioural (and later) genetic developments that developed wild animals into tame companions for humans? For this 1950s research, DK Belyaev chose foxes as the test subjects. DK Belyaev set himself the objective of breeding a tamer fox that would interact with human-beings very much like a domestic dog. The foxes used in his breeding programme were chosen for their temperament. To choose a fox for breeding, DK Belyaev would place his hand in front of foxes, and rank them based on how they reacted to the stimulus. Aggressive foxes that snapped or bit at his hand would be disqualified from the experiment, whilst the foxes that submitted to his presence or exhibited curiosity without attacking his hand would be mated together. The cubs of best behaved of the selected foxes would be mated together, and this process would be repeated over and over again. DK Belyaev (and his fellow Soviet scientists) were surprised to find that after just 10 generations, bout 10 generations, the ‘new’ foxes were better behaved, very playful, smaller in size, and even had white patches of fur on large areas of their bodies. Many wagged their tails like dogs, and some even had blue eyes and the beginnings of drooping ears. 

Whilst testing the new ‘silver’ coloured foxes, it was found that they possessed a significantly lower level of adrenaline than their wild counterparts. Adrenaline directly affected the behavior of the foxes, the size they grew, and somehow, the colour of the fur. Through some more testing, the scientists discovered that the level of melanin (a chemical responsible for pigmentation) in the foxes was lower as well, explaining how the foxes emerged with colours never before heard of from their breed. Generally speaking, this groundbreaking research has ben used to explain how ancient populations of wolves slowly evolved into domesticated dogs over thousands of years of interaction with human beings. 

Russian Language Sources:

https://www.nkj.ru/archive/articles/14644/

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Домашние_лисы

https://ru.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Беляев,_Дмитрий_Константинович

English Languae source:

http://discovermagazine.com/2016/dec/the-origins-of-dogs#

 

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