Domestication of foxes largely began on P.E.I., researchers determine

Domesticated foxes in a pen at the Rosbank Fur Farms on Prince Edward Island.  (Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside - image credit)
Domesticated foxes in a pen at the Rosbank Fur Farms on Prince Edward Island. (Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside - image credit)

Many Islanders know that foxes can be a bit friendlier on Prince Edward Island than in other provinces. They roam roadsides and beaches at dawn and dusk, and many aren't shy about being photographed.

There may be a good reason for that — the Island is one of the first places in the world where foxes were domesticated.

"The first successful fox breeding pelts were produced in P.E.I. in 1896, and from there the industry really exploded out of P.E.I.," said Halie Rando, a biologist at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Rando was the lead researcher on a study published this spring in the Journal of Heredity, which looked at the history of fox domestication and how wild fox genetics have been shaped by both geography and time.

"P.E.I. is critical for the domestication of foxes, which is a really special domestication event because it happened so recently in history," Rando told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier.

Rando originally became interested in the animals as a kid, and heard stories from her aunt and grandmother about the unique foxes on P.E.I. Then, she saw a PBS documentary about a group of foxes in Russia that were bred to show dog-like behaviour, a topic she later ended up researching.

With a background in computer science, Rando hopes to understand the statistics behind fox breeding, not just the results of it.

"It gives us a lot more power to understand behaviour," she said. "I've just tried to really tangle out different elements that we can look at quantitatively to try to help us understand these really, really complex phenomena."

'A year's salary'

In the late 1800s, fox pelts were extremely valuable, especially the silver and black ones similar to those featured on P.E.I.'s coat of arms.

"One pelt could be a year's salary," Rando said.

In the late 1890s, a team of two farmers-turned-trappers living on the Island began working to breed foxes in captivity.

Their goal was to bring out recessive pelt colours rather than the more common red fur.

Foxes at the Rosebank Fur Farms on Prince Edward Island in 1922.
Foxes at the Rosebank Fur Farms on Prince Edward Island in 1922.

Foxes at the Rosebank Fur Farms in 1922. (Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside)

"They just started making money hand over fist by breeding these really high-quality pelts,"  Rando said.

But it was more complex than just getting the foxes to breed. Rando said foxes become highly stressed in captivity, so it took time for breeders to find the right environment.

They eventually found a suitable place in the form of Oulton's Island, near Alberton.

"It was when this enterprise was moved to that island that they were able to actually develop an environment that was secure enough that the foxes weren't stressed out by predators and were able to breed in captivity," Rando said.

'Fun farm-bred genetics'

For about a decade, P.E.I. breeders were the kingpins of the fox pelt trade until the end of the Second World War saw the industry in North America largely collapse.

The red foxes at the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center in San Diego are a mix of Russian domesticated foxes, tame wild foxes, and fur farm rescues.
The red foxes at the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center in San Diego are a mix of Russian domesticated foxes, tame wild foxes, and fur farm rescues.

The red foxes at the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center in San Diego are a mix of Russian domesticated foxes, tame wild foxes, and fur farm rescues. (Anna Kukekova)

But for Rando, the important thing is what we can learn about domesticating animals from the modern-day fox gene pool on P.E.I.

"I'm really interested in how the industry has affected the wild populations in P.E.I., because I would imagine that you have some fun farm-bred genetics running around in wild foxes as well," she said.

Rando said fox breeding on the Island is likely what led to many of their descendants being more tame than their wild counterparts elsewhere.

Many of the silver foxes at the San Diego rescue are originally from Russia, but many with the same coat also roam wild on P.E.I.
Many of the silver foxes at the San Diego rescue are originally from Russia, but many with the same coat also roam wild on P.E.I.

Many of the silver foxes at the San Diego rescue are originally from Russia, but many with the same type of coat also roam wild on P.E.I. (Anna Kukekova)

Scientists can also use genetics to determine whether an animal's ancestors were once bred for pelts.

Rando plans to continue her research on fox domestication, even if foxes aren't quite tame enough to be household pets.

"Actually, there is something of a little bit of a resurgence of fox farming to breed foxes as pets. So on Instagram there are a lot of different pet foxes that you can follow," she said. "And you'll notice they all have silver coat colours."