How close are foxes to being domesticated

Bronze Age people tried to domesticate foxes

A Coruña - In the 1950s, Russian geneticist Dmitri Konstantinowitsch Belyayev began domesticated red foxes. Since foxes are not as social animals as wolves, it was not to be expected from the start that a "new dog" would develop from them. And yet the experiment, which has continued to this day, has shown amazing results.

Since those animals were always used for breeding that showed the least fear of humans, one finally had to deal with "house foxes" that shook paws and cuddled with humans. The appearance of different coat colors as well as floppy ears and curled tails rounded off the picture of the neo-pet - and provided interesting insights into the physical effects of domestication.


However, Belyayev was by no means the first to consider the domestication of foxes. This is shown by recent excavations on the Iberian Peninsula. In the region of Catalonia, archaeologists came across the graves of Bronze Age people who were buried with animals, including dogs, cattle, goats and foxes. And at least one of them must have been domesticated.

Aurora Grandal-d'Anglade's team from the Universidade da Coruña examined two archaeological sites from the first millennium BC, one near Barcelona and the other near Lleida. The former also contained the remains of an old fox that had broken its leg at one point or another, which was then splinted. According to the researcher, the fox is likely to have lived with humans for a long time.

Food for dog and fox

This is supported by the analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bone collagen of the fox, from which the diet of the animal can be derived. It resembles very much both that of the people found there and that of their dogs. According to the researchers, the Bronze Age Iberians fed their animal companions a diet that was heavily laden with grain.

At first glance, that doesn't sound like typical dog food. Grandal-d'Anglade, however, refers to the Roman agronomist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella from the first century, who recommended such a diet for dogs. In any case, the isotope analysis shows that at least this fox was taken care of by humans. The remains of other foxes, on the other hand, showed traces of their typical natural diet.

The dog as a pack animal

Another interesting result of the investigation was that the dogs apparently were not only used as hunting and herding dogs. They were also pack animals - according to the researchers, horses were still rare in the region at the time. The skeletons of some dogs show damage to the spine, which must be traced back to heavy loads. Either parcels were strapped around the dogs to be carried or they had to pull transport tools such as sledges or rod loops analogous to the travois of the North American natives.

Grandal-d'Anglade and her colleagues point out that recent excavations in Siberia found the remains of Paleolithic dogs whose vertebrae show similar damage. From these findings, the researchers derive the assumption that dogs already played the role of transport animals in the early phase of their domestication and that this was just as important a function as hunting and herding dogs. When the early humans gradually began to explore the expanses of the northern hemisphere, which were no longer covered by ice, dogs could have played an even more central role than previously thought. (jdo, 3 March 2019)