A new paper questions if the animals in a famous experiment were ever wild.

In the 1950s, Dmitri K. Belyaec, a geneticist at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in  Novosibirsk, Russia, selectively bred foxes that he had acquired from a fur farm, concentrating only on reducing their fear of humans.

Within 10 generations, he wrote in 1979, ''Like dogs, these foxes seek contact with familiar persons, tend to get close to them, and lick their hands and faces.''

In a new paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, several scientists have challenged a common interpretation of Dr. Belyaev's results, and have questioned whether scientists who study domestication have any common understanding of what the word means.

The author's don't dispute the essence of Dr. Belyaev's work; the selection for tameness, which is regarded as profoundly important in exploring the genetics and evolution of behavior.

But that wasn't all that Dr. Belyaev discovered. His foxes also showed physical changes, like piebald coats and floppy ears - characteristics shared by many dogs, cows and other domesticated animals.

Dr. Belyaev and the researchers who followed up his work suggested, as had Charles Darwin before them, that there might be collection of physical traits that go along with the tameness called domestication syndrome.

The authors of the new paper argue that this idea is undermined by an intriguing subchapter in the long history of fur trade in Canada. The reaction to that criticism from other scientists has been mixed, reflecting contentious but cordial disagreements about what domestication is and how it happens.

The average pet lover may know the story of the foxes from a book by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila, Trut, who collaborated with Dr. Belyaev, called ''How to Tame a Fox [and Build a Dog].''

Far fewer people probably know about about the development of fox farming on the Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province.

The history is buried in plain sight, you might say, since you can learn about it easily if you visit the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame on the island.

The museum is not a common destination for evolutionary biologists who specialize in domestication. But one them did visit back in 2015, and he was taken aback.

The late Raymond Coppinger, a biologist at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who was a major contributor to the study of dog evolution, toured the museum and returned full of questions.

The honor and serving of the latest global operational research on Animals and Experiments, continues. The World Students Society thanks author, James Gorman


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