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Evolution: artificial selection and domestication
Evolution: artificial selection and domestication

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4 Experimental study of evolution and domestication

4.1 Introduction

Domestication of dogs and of most other livestock took place so long ago that reconstructing the course of events is extremely difficult. Written records and illustrations describing the origins of many modern breeds are also sparse until the 19th century. We can only guess at what the domesticators were aiming to produce and how and when domesticated traits appeared in the species subjected to artificial selection. However, a little-known experiment on the domestication of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) provides unique insight into the relationship between behaviour and structure under artificial selection.

V. vulpes is by far the most successful extant species of the family Canidae. Its natural range is very similar to that of the wolf, comprising Europe, USA and Canada, and northern and central Asia (including almost the whole of Russia, China and Japan), but in contrast to wolves, foxes are still widespread and common in many areas. Its coat colour varies from red (Figure 13a) to very dark brown; the underparts are usually paler, sometimes white, and the ears, legs and feet are darker, often almost black, and a white tip on the tail is common. So far as we know, the species has never been domesticated, though it has long been hunted for its valuable fur and, especially in Russia, kept in captivity for the same purpose.