After 45 years of selective breeding, and almost as many fox generations, scientists have produced what nature could not, a tame fox who eagerly follows his master's gaze.
Foxes bred on a farm in Siberia since 1959 not only look like dogs, they act like them in their ability to read someone's face for visual cues on what they are expected to do. Dogs, domesticated from wolves more than 10,000 years ago, are among the few animals with enough "social intelligence" to follow the visual instructions shown in the expression of a face or movements of a hand.
Now a study with the Russian foxes has shown they are just as adept. Scientists from Russia, Germany and America report today on the results of intelligence tests on the Siberian foxes which clearly put them on a par with dogs, and even above chimpanzees in being able to read gestures of human communication, such as pointing to hidden parcels of food with eyes or hands.
In a study in the journal Current Biology, Brian Hare of Harvard University and Lyudmilla Trut of the Russian Academy of Sciences suggest the domesticated foxes may be more pliable human companions than many other pets such as cats.
They say: "We show that fox kits [cubs] from an experimental population selectively bred over 45 years to approach humans fearlessly and non-aggressively (experimentally domesticated) are not only as skilful as dog puppies in using human gestures but are also more skilled than fox kits from a second, control population not bred for tame behaviour."
The foxes in the study are the descendants of 100 vixens and 30 male foxes brought together in 1959 as a breeding colony on a Siberian research station in Novosibirsk. Dmitry Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, bred the foxes for tameness and lack of aggression to humans as part of a fur-farming project. Only those with the most gentle disposition were allowed to breed.
Mr Belyaev even identified a "domesticated elite" called Class IE, eager to establish human contact, which whimpered to attract attention and sniffed and licked the hands of the scientists. After many generations, and 45,000 foxes later, the scientists noted distinct differences between the selectively bred fox colony and their wild cousins. The foxes also looked different. Their coats developed white patches just like some dogs. Their muzzles became shorter and more puppy-like and in some, the ears became floppy and tails curly.
"Through genetic selection alone, our research group has created a population of tame foxes fundamentally different in temperament and behaviour from their wild forebears," Mr Trut said.
Biologists had thought the dog, the first animal to be domesticated, had come about by the selective breeding of wolf cubs for a variety of traits that would be useful to early man.
But the latest findings suggest selecting just one trait - tameness - may have been enough to produce a domesticated companion with a range of beneficial behaviours and cute looks.
Intelligence tests on the Siberian foxes have shown they can find hidden food by following the pointing gestures of humans, a feat that chimps cannot perform.
Richard Byrne, of St Andrews University, said the study could overturn accepted theories about how dogs became domesticated from the wolf. "It raises as a real possibility of the very striking idea that the domestication of dogs owes a lot to linkage between genetic characters so that when dogs may have been selected for one thing, and one thing alone, we may have got a lot of other characteristics as well."
It was also thought that wolves were relatively easy to tame because they were a pack animal and naturally obeyed orders from those higher in the pecking order. But the latest findings show that foxes, a solitary animal, can also be bred to read the communication gestures of humans.