The Earth gives us several examples of different animals in a symbiotic relationship. From clown fish and anemone to ants and aphids, each pair has something to offer the other. They form a balance necessary to promote the next generation of both species. Each gets something from the other. But what happens when one partner takes control and begins dictating traits for the other partner?
Domestication of wild animals likely began as a symbiotic relationship between humans and other animals. The change from hunter/gather to a more static lifestyle offered the opportunity for the first wild wolves to get close enough to lose their fear of man. Seeing the wolves as another form of defense, humans likely made the intellectual jump from wolves as food to wolves as protection. As the relationship between the two grew, the first domesticated animal began to arise.
Domestication should not be confused with taming. Taming an animal could be part of the domestication process, but domestication takes several generations for most species.
Domestication of any animal relies on several factors.
First of all diet. If an animal solely relies on the food that humans (or other biologically advanced organisms) eat, it is less likely to be domesticated. Cows for example eat grass; humans do not, therefore there is no direct competition for food. Wolves probably dined on scraps, entrails, rotten food and other things humans had no use of.
Secondly, the ability to breed in captivity and quick growth rate. Some animals have a highly structured mating cycle and interference by captors prevents impregnation. Most birds of prey have a very complex mating performance, that is why any successful matings of eagles and large birds of prey is seen as a huge success. If an animal has a growth rate similar to humans more than likely it will not be domesticated. Elephants, for example, can be tamed, however with their long life cycles (close to humans) any breeding programs would take several Human generations to see results.
Next would be a compatible temperament with humans. Animals such as rhinos are not good domestication material because of their territorial nature. White-tailed deer also are not good candidates because of their highly evolved flight response to danger. Animals which require a tremendous amount of energy to keep calm are not likely to be tamed or domesticated.
Lastly and maybe most importantly, the animals in question must have some sort of social structure. Dogs and wolves: packs; horses and cows: herds; sheep and goats: flocks. Understanding the social structure allows humans to put themselves on top.
Through the years, humans have desired particular traits in the animals they domesticate. Cross breeding and at times interbreeding brings out recessive genes that would not show up in the wild. For instance there are over 800 different breeds of cattle in the modern Earth. Most of these animals do not look like their wild ancestors the auroch, the zebu and the Bos, yet they still resemble the common ancestor. Different breeds are selected for milk production, transportation needs and meat.
A great example of recent domestication is the silver fox experiment. Breeding red foxes with desirable behavioral traits such as: non aggression, whimpering to attract attention, wagging tails and barking, over 40 fox generations has produced a breed that acts more like a dog than a wild fox. Experiments that began in 1958 have shown that selective breeding can produce not only behavior changes but physical and biological changes as well.
World building offers unique opportunities for writers of all types to explore different species and how they would evolve on their world. What some writers don’t explore enough is the involvement of domestication in these unique worlds. Sure we see things like Tribbles from Star Treck or a Bantha from Star Wars but where and how did these animals come about? What sparked the benefit of having this creature around in the first place? And how much has the evolved species changed from the original?