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Domestication Syndrome

July 23, 2014

A new hypothesis ties domestication in mammals to “cute” physical features.



Domestic mammal syndrome. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Domesticated animals, including dogs and rabbits, may have a developmental deficit that makes them both tame and cute. This according to Adam Wilkins, an evolutionary biologist at Humboldt University in Berlin. He notes that researchers going back to Darwin have noticed that domesticated animals are not only friendlier and less fearful, but have distinctive features, too:

ADAM WILKINS (Humboldt University, Berlin):

Smaller jaws, hence rounder faces; smaller teeth as part of that; floppy ears; and pigmentation changes, with either white or brown patches developing on the fur coats.


He and his colleagues report that all these traits can be linked to neural crest cells. Those are stem cells that form near the spinal cord and migrate to other parts of a developing animal. They suggest this process may be stunted in domesticated animals, resulting in traits that humans find appealing. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.