How It Works

Study on domestication syndrome explains why tame animals are cute

Your labrador curled up in front of the fire might not look like a wolf anymore, but over 15,000 years humans domesticated the species from the wild. And not just man’s best friend – our ancestors also domesticated cows, horses, sheep, and birds too. We did this by selecting the tamest animals and breeding them to pass their friendly character onto their offspring. Over years, the appearance of tame species changed too, developing characteristics like cute floppy ears, little snouts, and white patches.

The phenomenon is known as domestication syndrome and has recently been observed in wild mice. A team of researchers led by Anna Lindholm from the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at UZH have reported findings that a population of mice inhabiting a barn near Zurich have developed two distinct changes in their appearance – white patches in their brown fur, and shorter snouts. Over the last 15 years the team of researchers have provided food and water for their furry friends. “The mice gradually lost their fear and developed signs of domestication. This happened without any human selection, solely as a result of being exposed to us regularly,” says Anna Lindholm

Scientist thing that a group of special unspecialised cells (stem cells) in the early mouse embryo is responsible for both the behavioural and physical changes in character. The cartilage of the ear, melanin-forming cells, and the adrenal glands that produce stress hormones. Tamer animals have smaller adrenal glands that are less active, so changes of fur colour and ear shape can be considered unintended side effects of domestication as they are all traced back to the same stem cells that were more passive in the early stages of the mouse’s development.


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