Glasgow study finds urban red foxes evolve into domesticated dogs

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Clara Punsita Ritthikarn
Reporter

University of Glasgow study discovers a link between domestication of dogs and foxes.

Urban red foxes are diverging from their country cousins and becoming more similar to domesticated dogs, according to University of Glasgow-led research.

The team, led by Dr Kevin Parsons of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, has conducted a new analysis of the differences between urban and rural red foxes in the UK.

Their findings shed a light on how dogs and cats evolve into domestic pets but stressed that urban foxes were certainly not domesticated. During the coronavirus pandemic, it is acknowledged that many cities throughout the UK create new habitats for wild populations, including red foxes.

Dr. Parsons said: “We wondered whether this change in lifestyle was related to adaptive differences between urban and rural populations of red foxes. We assessed skulls from hundreds of foxes found within London and the surrounding countryside and saw that urban foxes had a smaller brain size capacity but also a different snout shape that would help them forage within urban habitats.”

Dr Parsons also said there was less of a difference between males and females in urban foxes.

Study co-author, Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland, said: “This is important because human-animal interactions are continuous and some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today. So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication.”

Meanwhile, the researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Edinburgh and Massachusetts and National Museums Scotland, decided to test whether differences found between urban and rural red foxes had any similarity to what is found across different species of foxes.

“This could tell us whether the evolution of urban and rural differences was completely unique or something that has potentially happened previously. It turned out that the way urban and rural foxes differed matched up with a pattern of fox evolution that has occurred over millions of years between species. While the amount of change isn’t as big, this showed that this recent evolutionary change in foxes is dependent upon deep-seated tendencies for how foxes can change. In other words, these changes were not caused by random mutations having random effects the way many might think evolution occurs,” said Dr Parsons.

The team’s research paper “Skull morphology diverges between urban and rural populations of red foxes mirroring patterns of domestication and macroevolution” is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B.