Facial shape differences between rats selected for tame and aggressive behaviors

PLoS One. 2017 Apr 3;12(4):e0175043. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0175043. eCollection 2017.


Domestication has been consistently accompanied by a suite of traits called the domestication syndrome. These include increased docility, changes in coat coloration, prolonged juvenile behaviors, modified function of adrenal glands and reduced craniofacial dimensions. Wilkins et al recently proposed that the mechanistic factor underlying traits that encompass the domestication syndrome was altered neural crest cell (NCC) development. NCC form the precursors to a large number of tissue types including pigment cells, adrenal glands, teeth and the bones of the face. The hypothesis that deficits in NCC development can account for the domestication syndrome was partly based on the outcomes of Dmitri Belyaev's domestication experiments initially conducted on silver foxes. After generations of selecting for tameness, the foxes displayed phenotypes observed in domesticated species. Belyaev also had a colony of rats selected over 64 generations for either tameness or defensive aggression towards humans. Here we focus on the facial morphology of Belyaev's tame, 'domesticated' rats to test whether: 1) tameness in rats causes craniofacial changes similar to those observed in the foxes; 2) facial shape, i.e. NCC-derived region, is distinct in the tame and aggressive rats. We used computed-tomography scans of rat skulls and landmark-based geometric morphometrics to quantify and analyze the facial skeleton. We found facial shape differences between the tame and aggressive rats that were independent of size and which mirrored changes seen in domesticated animals compared to their wild counterparts. However, there was no evidence of reduced sexual dimorphism in the face of the tame rats. This indicates that not all morphological changes in NCC-derived regions in the rats follow the pattern of shape change reported in domesticated animals or the silver foxes. Thus, certain phenotypic trends that are part of the domestication syndrome might not be consistently present in all experimental animal models.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Breeding
  • Domestication
  • Face / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Foxes / physiology
  • Rats
  • Skull / physiology

Grants and funding

This project was funded by the Max Planck Society (FWA) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG-INST 37/706-1 to KH). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.