Neuromorphological changes following selection for tameness and aggression in the Russian farm-fox experiment

Erin E. Hecht, Anna V. Kukekova, David A. Gutman, Gregory M. Acland, Todd M. Preuss, Lyudmila N. Trut

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Russian farm-fox experiment is an unusually long-running and well-controlled study designed to replicate wolf-to-dog domestication. As such, it offers an unprecedented window onto the neural mechanisms governing the evolution of behavior. Here we report evolved changes to gray matter morphology resulting from selection for tameness versus aggressive responses toward humans in a sample of 30 male fox brains. Contrasting with standing ideas on the effects of domestication on brain size, tame foxes did not show reduced brain volume. Rather, gray matter volume in both the tame and aggressive strains was increased relative to conventional farm foxes bred without deliberate selection on behavior. Furthermore, tame- and aggressive-enlarged regions overlapped substantially, including portions of motor, somatosensory, and prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum. We also observed differential morphologic covariation across distributed gray matter networks. In one prefrontal-cerebellum network, this covariation differentiated the three populations along the tame-aggressive behavioral axis. Surprisingly, a prefrontal-hypothalamic network differentiated the tame and aggressive foxes together from the conventional strain. These findings indicate that selection for opposite behaviors can influence brain morphology in a similar way.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6144-6156
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number28
StatePublished - Jul 14 2021


  • Aggression
  • Canids
  • Domestication
  • Farm-fox experiment
  • Neuroimaging
  • Social behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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