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Lecture | Studium Generale

How to tame a fox (and build a dog) – The greatest experiment in animal breeding

  • Prof Lee Dugatkin
Tuesday 11 December 2018
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

The late 1950s were dangerous times for Soviet biologists, particularly for those pursuing genetics. After the death of Stalin Mendelian genetics was still widely criticized and many scientists were prosecuted and sent to Siberian slave camps. However, in these troubled times Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyayev embarked on one of the most daring and ambitious experiments in animal breeding. He wanted to see if it would be possible to tame a silver fox, thereby hoping to throw light on a great historical puzzle: how did our prehistoric ancestors succeed in domesticating wolves. Starting out with just 130 silver foxes, purchased from a fur-farm, he started selectively breeding for ‘tameness’. And with remarkable results: by nature silver foxes are aggressive and avoid human contact. But after four generations they were showing clear signs of tameness such as tail wagging. And in the following generations foxes started to look more and more doglike, developing curly tails, floppy ears and a spotted coat. Today the tame foxes can hardly be distinguished from dogs.

In this lecture the renowned American evolutionary biologist, behavioral ecologist, and historian of science Lee Dugatkin will talk about his latest book How to Tame a Fox (And Build a Dog) (2017).

Speaker: Prof Lee Dugatkin, Professor in Biology at the University Louisville, Kentucky

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