Interview with Dr. Lee Dugatkin about How to Tame a Fox

Dr. Lee Dugatkin talks about the Russian fox experiment and his new book, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog).

Three very cute domesticated foxes sitting in the grass
Photo:Irena Pivovarova, The Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Novosibirsk

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The Russian fox experiment to breed tame foxes has fascinated people for decades. I was very excited to speak to Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin about his new book with co-author Lyudmila Trut, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution.

Zazie: I loved your book. I really enjoyed reading it. I thought it was absolutely fascinating from start to finish.

Lee: Thank you so much.

Zazie: So, first of all, for people who are reading this, I think most people have heard of the Soviet fox experiment, but can you just briefly explain what it was and what it was about.

Lee: Sure. Well, the experiment, which has been going on for almost six decades now, it was begun in an attempt to understand the process of domestication, especially the domestication of dogs from wolves, in a way that they could actually watch the process of domestication happen in real time. Because of course, the domestication of dogs took thousands of years and we only have fragmentary evidence about the details of what happened. And the idea here was if we could speed up the process and actually watch the domestication of the species in real time, we could get much much more information and shed light on how one of man’s best friends came to be,

Zazie: So in order to write the book, you’ve been out to visit. What is it like to go and visit, and are the foxes as cute as we imagine?

Lee: Oh yes. I’ve been there a couple of times, and it’s like no experience I’ve ever had. Both times I’ve been there it was winter, and so Siberia in winter is a wonderful combination of just incredible beauty and at the same time extremely brutal conditions in terms of the weather. So it gets to be about minus 30, minus 40 on a fairly regular basis. But of course the foxes are fine because they’ve evolved in these kind of climates and so they’re fine.

The cover of the book How to Tame a Fox by Lee Dugatkin

But in terms of the animals themselves and the way that they interact with humans, you know you can go and google up a couple of videos where you’ll see these animals interacting with humans and you’ll see pictures and it looks like they’re calm, tame animals, and they sort of look like dogs and so on. But until you actually hold them in your arms it’s hard to imagine just how friendly these animals are to humans. I mean the domestication process has no question worked. I mean these are animals that when you’re handed one of these foxes, within 5 seconds they’ll be licking your nose and putting their head on your shoulder.

Zazie: Wow.

Lee: And the thing about it is, this is one of these things that sometimes people get a little confused about. You know these animals, what’s led to them being so tame and so friendly to humans is not that they have learned that from sort of daily interactions with humans. This is an experiment in genetics and so basically every generation the calmest, friendliest towards humans are selected. But the people who do the experiment have been very careful to make sure that it’s not as if the animals are learning things as they develop from their interactions with humans, because we want to know whether or not the changes in their behaviour are due to differences in genetics, and so they are very, very careful to make sure that all these tame behaviours are not the result of learning. They are the result of a genetic experiment of domestication and boy does it work. Because these animals, they live to interact with humans. I’m an animal behaviourist by training and I’m very very careful about using language like I just used, and I mean I usually would not say something like "these animals live to have interactions with humans", but there’s just no question that they do. I mean they just go crazy when a person goes around they’re so excited.

Zazie: That must be amazing.

Lee: It is!

Zazie: So as the foxes became tamer, there were also other changes, changes in their appearance and the friendliness that you said. What kind of changes did they have in their appearance?

Lee: There’s been a whole series of changes that have occurred in terms of the way that they look. And just one sort of statement before I walk you through the changes, is that these changes have never been what the scientists were choosing each generation, right. So the only thing they ever do to determine who is going to be the parents of the next generation in the experiment, is test them on their behaviour towards humans. That’s it, that’s the only thing they ever select on. But what’s happened over the generations is that lots of other changes have occurred besides getting calmer and tamer animals. So early on for example, some of the first changes were that the animals had curlier bushier tails, the sort of tails that you imagine when you think of a dog wagging their tail because they’re excited to see you. Some of the animals began to show droopier, floppier ears. In addition, they began to see a much more mutt-like kind of mottled fur colour. And then a little bit later they began to see really really reduced levels of stress hormones. So this is not something you can actually see but if you test their stress hormone levels, they’re just much much lower. They don’t seem to be as stressed as a normal fox would be in the wild, their stress hormone levels are that much lower.

A tame fox cuddles up to Dr. Lee Dugatkin in Russia
Dr. Lee Dugatkin with one of the tame foxes. Photo: Aaron Dugatkin.

Other things that you could see that changed were they began to have, if you looked at their faces they began to have a much more dog-like face. So what you saw, instead of seeing that very pronounced fox-like snout that you would see in foxes in the wild, they tended to have more rounded puppy-like features in their faces. And they also tended to have those kind of features develop in their bodies, so what I mean there is they tended to be – when you think of a fox in the wild you think of an animal that’s on the very thin kind of gracile legs that allow them to move very quickly. The domesticated foxes over time began to have kind of a lower-to-the-ground chunkier look that you might associate again with some breeds of dog. And so in general what you tended to see was a kind of build up of more traits that are typically seen in the juvenile stages of foxes than in the adult stages. And those tend to be more dog-like. Does that make sense?

Zazie: It does. Thank you.

Lee: Oh good.

Zazie: You mentioned the hormones and one of the things that really struck me throughout the book was how hard everybody worked, especially Lyudmila Trut, to do what they could with the science even though going back a long way there weren’t such good techniques available. And then that’s changed over time as a new generation of scientists have been able to go out there, hasn’t it?

Lee: Absolutely. So one of the things that’s incredibly striking about the researchers who led this is, as you say, when they started this in the late 50s and early 60s, first of all the techniques were just not there that are present today. But even the techniques that were around then, you know this was the Soviet Union at a time when things were very difficult financially, and so even the technology and the techniques that existed, they often did not have the best access to these things. They’re in Siberia, they’re in a political climate where it’s very difficult for them to get resources, and yet somehow they managed to do what they could with the resources they got. So Lyudmila, who’s the person who’s been running the experiment all these years, she and her team improvised a lot, they worked with what they had. If they didn’t have the newest vials and the newest collecting devices they worked with what they had. If nobody had ever tried something before but it seemed as though it was important for them to try it, they went to the literature and they studied everything they possibly could and said okay, here’s the best thing we can try and let’s see what happens. And often it worked, it allowed them to test what they wanted to test. And so with relatively minimal resources compared to what we might imagine to day they were able to put together a fairly good picture of things like hormone levels and other things that required technical measures.

A wild Russian fox, Vulpes vulpes, on the Kamchatka Peninsula
A wild Russian Fox on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Photo: Alexander Piragis/Shutterstock.

So for example, even some of the changes that we talked about in the way they looked, like more dog-like faces, you know they didn’t have the super hi-tech machinery that would allow you to basically do x-rays to measure bone changes that would be associated with that thing, but they did have callipers and other things that people use to measure when they’re out in the field, and until they could get their hands on a good X-ray machine that’s what they used. And then when they could get their hands on a good X-ray machine, then they went up to that. And they were just very, very good at that kind of improvising.

Zazie: The other thing I didn’t realize, perhaps naively, but it’s part of the untold story that you’re telling in your book, is that when they started this project the political climate was actually very dangerous, and you say that Dmitri Belyaev actually warned people that this was a dangerous project that they would be working on didn’t he?

Lee: Yes, absolutely. The Soviet Union in the 30s, 40s and 50s was in a very dark period in terms of science because  a pseudo-scientific charlatan named Trofim Lysenko had worked his way up to be in charge of certain kinds of science in the USSR. Lysenko had convinced Stalin that the study of genetics was a kind of Western bourgeois lie and that there were other theories about genetics that should be adopted in the Soviet Union. He made it virtually illegal to study modern genetics in the Soviet Union, and this was still going on at the start of the fox experiment. And of course the problem for the researchers working on the fox study was that any experiment like they were doing is an experiment in genetics. I mean you’re basically choosing which animals are going to be the parents of the next generation… you’re doing a classic experiment in evolution and that’s an experiment in genetics. And so at the start, they had to hide what they were doing from the authorities because they could get in serious trouble. And as you say, Belyaev early on was very clear when he started bringing people in to work with him on this.

You know the people who came to work with him, they knew this, because everybody knew it, but Belyaev wanted to be very very clear to them that what they were doing was risky, and it was risky at different levels. It was risky in terms of their careers, and there was a chance, albeit a small chance by that time, that they could be thrown in jail. Ending up in prison for doing genetics was a real threat about 10 years before they started the experiment, but by the time they began the real threat was wrecking your career rather than ending up in jail. And so Belyaev was very careful to make sure everybody understood the risk when they were joining. They understood it all too well, but still wanted very much to be part of what they thought could be a monumentally important experiment

Zazie: And Lyudmila had to do quite a lot at the start. She had to move her husband, baby and mother to Siberia. And I didn’t realize that they didn’t even have a building to start with, so she had to take very long trips to different fox farms, didn’t she?

Lee: Yes that’s right. So you know, Lydumila’s a good friend now and I would tell you that if you look at the sort of things she did, especially early on, she really was sort of like the Jane Goodall of the canine world. This is someone who, when she started to experiment she was young. She basically joined and became the lead person doing the experiment very shortly after she had finished undergraduate work in Moscow. And Moscow was a very cosmopolitan place, but in order to do the experiment she took her entire family and her husband and her young baby and they moved to Siberia, and when they moved there the experimental fox farm that exists today didn’t exist. They were just setting everything up and so basically four times a year Lyudmila would have to leave her family, hop on a train, she took a very very long train ride, and spent months at a time at fox farms that existed around the Soviet Union. Those farms were primarily there for the fur trade, right, for getting furs that they were exporting to the West. But what Lyudmila did was she would talk to people at these places and say look, can you just give me a little bit of space and allow me to work with some of these animals for this experiment that we’re developing. And she did this at many, many places.

Lyudmila Trut with one of her beloved tame foxes in Siberia
Lyudmila Trut with a tame fox. Photo: Vasily Kovaly

Eventually she settled mostly at one of these very big fox farms. It was about a 12 hour train ride from where they lived in Siberia and she would go there many times a year for anywhere from weeks to months. And she would basically be given a house that many of the workers at that farm would live in, and she would go out and test animals to determine which were the calmest towards humans and then she would allow those individuals to parent the next generation. And so the whole experiment started initially not where it’s located now. It took them a good decade to get an experimental place right near where they lived and where the scientific institutions were in Siberia. So it was really quite a brave thing for her to do, to say the least.

Zazie: It was, definitely! And they had another very hard time after the break-up of the Soviet Union and with the financial crisis. Did it seem then that the experiment might end, do you think?

Lee: Yeah there was a real possibility that the experiment could collapse for the lack of resources for the most basic things. And as you say there were two sort of tough times more recently. The first was when the Soviet Union broke up, and the second one was when there was a real problem with the rouble that happened a few years after that with the devaluation of the rouble, and the economy was really really hard. And so hard that there were times where they weren’t even getting funds for the most basic things. So you know, when you’re looking at the late 1990s, it wasn’t as if they weren’t getting money to do the more technical expensive kind of things that they often had to do. It was that they weren’t getting enough money for food to feed these hundreds of foxes, for vaccinations for these foxes. And so Lyudmila again, she and her whole team basically being innovative and dealing with the situation as it was, they did everything they could to piece together small chunks of money to keep the foxes around so they could keep the experiment going. So that sometimes involved putting their own personal money in, it sometimes involved basically going out and stopping cars on the road and asking them for food or money for the foxes.

And it also led Lyudmila to write an article that’s probably the most famous article about this experiment. So there is a magazine called the American Scientist, and it’s a popular science magazine. In 1999 Lyudmila wrote a paper for them and in that paper one of the things she did was summarize the – at that point the 40 years of research on the experiment already. But it was at the end of the paper that you find an unusual section. Basically at the end of the paper Lyudmila explains to the readers of this article how bad the situation is for them in terms of just getting basic resources. And it is basically a call for help from the outside. And that really translated into all sorts of wonderful things happening.

At one level those things were very personal, so Lyudmila has these letters to this day from people who read the article. Just you know regular readers of the magazine who would say I don’t have a lot of money but I can send you, you know whatever it might be, a couple hundred dollars or twenty dollars depending on the person, I wanna help. And enough of those came in that that translated into some real money for them to keep things going. The other thing that it did was it announced it to the whole world, including lots of people in the scientific world who kind of knew the experiment but didn’t know how bad things were in terms of the climate and getting money. And it opened the door to all sorts of scientific collaborations, particularly with people in the US and Europe, that translated eventually into funds that let them keep going. So you know, in the late 90s there was a real possibility that this experiment could just end, they didn’t have any money, but they pulled it out. And so it’s still going on today.

Zazie: And now it’s been going on for about 60 years.

Lee: That’s right.

Zazie: And there have been so many scientific discoveries coming from it. I wanted to ask, what do you think is the most interesting scientific finding from this study?

Lee: Oh, overall, what’s the most interesting finding scientifically?

Zazie: Yes.

Lee: So I think there are a couple of things. Perhaps most important is that first of all they were able to speed up the domestication process fast enough that we could actually watch a species being domesticated and see the order in which things happened in the domestication process. I think perhaps most importantly in many ways is this notion that the key thing to domesticating a species is to choose the animals that are most friendly towards humans, and almost everything else comes along for the ride once you do that. So at a very general level, sort of even more general than the dogs from wolves evolution, people know that when you look at domesticated species you tend to see a bunch of traits that are common in almost all domesticated species. There are things like the curly ears, and the floppy tails, and the mottled colour patterns and the juvenile-like features. This is something that is very common in many many domesticated species. And what the fox experiment showed so beautifully is that that comes along, those other traits come along, when all you do is select for prosocial behaviour towards humans. They’re all genetically linked in some way that the fox team is beginning to understand but doesn’t fully understand yet. And that was, from the start, what Belyaev and Lyudmila had predicted: that if they only selected on behaviour, they would not only get behavioural changes but they would get all these other changes that we tend to see in domesticated species. And they were right.

Zazie: That’s amazing. They both seem very forward-thinking in the ways that you describe them, and what you say about Belyaev thinking about the research and how the research might continue, and some of the other studies you say he thought about doing on self-domestication but couldn’t do. He just seems to have been amazingly visionary in terms of what he was doing?

Lee: You know, that’s so true and one of the fascinating things for me researching this book was that Belyaev early on – so the experiment started in the late 1950s but he sort of was tinkering with ideas in  his head I would say from the late 40s on this experiment. And when you read what he’s writing at that time, the fascinating thing is that he is talking about ideas that were not fully understood or developed for decades yet. And when you read it you see this person that’s struggling to find the language, the words, the terminology to describe what he’s thinking about. Because that terminology didn’t exist yet. Nowadays we have all sorts of terminology to describe the genetics of what Belyaev was thinking about way back then. But the words, the terminology, didn’t exist and so it was fascinating to watch somebody write, and you saying oh yeah what he’s talking about is X, but that didn’t really, nobody had a term for that at that point and you could see him thinking decades ahead of what most people at the time were thinking. And in terms of what you were saying about the self-domestication idea, basically Belyaev even in those days was thinking that the whole process of domestication might be very important in understanding human evolution. That we may have domesticated ourselves by choosing the calmest most prosocial mates. And that theory, again, was sort of many many decades ahead of the time. Now, people have actually looked at self-domestication in other primate species, so in bonobos for example, and there’s a whole theory about human domestication that’s tied to that work. But Belyaev was thinking about this, you know, 50 years ago before anybody else even had tinkered with it and certainly before anybody had designed experiments, he was thinking about what those experiments might be. He could never do them because there were so many things he was involved with and there were ethical issues about doing things that didn’t allow him to do it. But nonetheless he was there mentally, he had these ideas long before anyone else did.

Zazie: I found that fascinating. I found your whole book fascinating.

Lee: Thank you.

Zazie: Before we end, is there anything else that you would like to say about your book?

Lee: You know, on a personal note I would say that working on the book was the most extraordinary experience I’ve had in my life. And I mean that not only in terms of about learning the science that was involved in this sixty year experiment, but in terms of becoming colleagues and friends with all of the people that were involved in this experiment. And understanding the inside story: what it was that they really had to do on a daily basis to keep this almost six-generation cutting-edge experiment going. And I was just in awe of the people that were involved in this. They are spectacular scientists and they’re also just the nicest most generous people that you can imagine. So it was a real honour for me to have a chance to work with Lyudmila and others to tell this story. Because there’s so much here, there’s the science and then there’s the animal-human bond. These animals you know, at some point they’re going to end up being pets in houses. Now it may be another decade or two before that happens but these are going to be dog-like pets and to sort of have been involved in understanding how all of that occurred was a special experience.

Zazie: Thank you very much for your time.

Lee: My pleasure.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is published by Chicago University Press. You can find out more about Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin on his website and follow him on twitter. He also blogs at Psychology Today.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list.

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.

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.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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