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Domestication: The Pick of the Litter, Litter After Litter
It’s important to take good care of your pet—after all, it’s the product of millennia of domestication. Read on to learn more about how once-wild animals found a place in our homes.
If you raised a siberian husky pup and a wolf cub side-by-side, giving each one the same food, training, and number of belly scratches, you would still wind up with one tame creature and one wild one. So why the difference? Though both creatures are technically the same species (Canis lupus) and share virtually the same DNA, only the husky's genes are programmed for domestication. The traits we associate with domestication—such as friendliness, calmness, and even floppy ears—have all been selected by humans and passed down from one generation of huskies to the next. In simpler terms: nature created the wolf; we bred the husky.
An example of the domestication process can be seen in a famous Russian experiment using arctic foxes. Beginning in 1958, scientists took an assortment of wild foxes and selected only the few that showed a specific trait—friendliness toward humans. They allowed those foxes to breed then selected only the friendliest of that litter, and so on and so on. After only a few generations, the foxes began to exhibit behaviors never found in their wild ancestors, such as whining and tail wagging. What's more, the domesticated foxes took on new appearances, sporting more juvenile features and spotted fur. Though the strange new foxes might have been considered a new species, they—like dogs to wolves—were just a domesticated version of the same wild foxes.
Although dogs have been domesticated for roughly 33,000 years and cats for 12,000, no one is quite sure how either species came to be domesticated. One of the most popular theories is that only the least aggressive animals were permitted to hang around early human settlements, and over time, humans began breeding the friendliest of the bunch. The advantages were clear: dogs aided in hunting, while cats kept food stores free of rodents and protected the villages from laser pointers.