A man holds a domesticated fox

Red foxes bred for tameness show genetic changes that have been linked to domestication in dogs. Credit: Kirill Kukhmar/TASS/Getty

Genomics

The genetics that make foxes hungry for human company

Friendly foxes bear a gene variant linked to autism in humans.

Specific genes seem to determine how friendly red foxes are towards people.

In 1959, scientists in Russia began breeding red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) for friendliness towards humans. Later, the researchers began breeding a second group of foxes for aggressiveness.

Seeking to understand which genes underlie different social behaviours, Anna Kukekova at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, Guojie Zhang at the University of Copenhagen and their colleagues assembled the red fox genome and used it to compare the Russian lineages’ genetic sequences. The scientists found 103 genetic regions that differed between the populations, including some regions known to confer tameness on dogs.

One of those regions includes a gene called SorCS1. In humans, alterations in this gene are associated with autism and Alzheimer’s disease. But in foxes, alterations seem to dictate whether the fox is tame or aggressive.

The researchers suggest that the fox represents a powerful model for understanding the genetic basis of behaviour.