Evolved to be a Super Chicken

Anyone remember “Super Chicken”?

I have wanted to raise chickens for years.  I think it’s a mix of seeing how much fun it might be to play with domestication ala Darwin (I love gardening too), really admiring the fancy chickens at the county fairs we used to go to in New York, & NY’s terrible deer tick & lyme disease epidemic (non-industrialized chickens eat ticks).  Alabama doesn’t seem to have such great fairs like those in NY, at least not near enough for us to go to annually like we used to do summers in the Hudson Valley.  Alas.  Lots of chicken breeding farms though, the industrial kind.  And we had the perfect yard for raising chickens in New York–a semi-rural acre with neighbors who probably wouldn’t have cared to have chickens wandering around.  I miss that yard.  We don’t have anything like that in Alabama.  But at the time, well, I was in grad school & commuting 1 1/2 hours to get there & working as an adjunct at four different institutions & TAing & collecting my data locally & raising three kids &, well, you get the picture.  I finally had the basement & the garage & the van my band always needed too, but you can guess how much use those got too…

I bring my interest in chickens up by way of drawing attention to a really interesting cover story in the new Smithsonian first annual food issue.  Writers Jerry Adler & Andrew Lawler’s “How the Chicken Conquered the World” traces the domestication of a Southeast Asian wild fowl to current American superchicken.  The history of domestication & genetic mechanisms & implications are fascinating.  I love the Dogs Decoded documentary, which traces the Siberian silver fox domestication experiments that have been going on for the past 50 years (finding curled tails, rounded muzzles, & mottled coats emerge when natural selection pressures are relaxed &/or they are artificially selected for tameness).  This article isn’t that good, but it’s still interesting.

Some highlights:

  • According to archaeologists, chickens were first domesticated not for food but for cockfighting, which is “the world’s oldest continual sport.”
  • The earliest fossil bones of probably-chickens come from northeastern China ca. 5400 B.C., but the ancestors of chickens didn’t live in such cold, arid areas, so they may have already been domesticated & spread there from Southeast Asia.
  • Likely wild progenitor is red junglefowl Gallus gallus, which was originally proposed by Chas. Darwin (they look & act like chickens, with the red wattles, cock-a-doodle-doo, & fighting spur) & has been confirmed via DNA.
  • Domestication selected for a mutation of the TBC1D1 gene that regulates glucose metabolism is probably what gives “broilers” their plumpness.
  • It also selected for a mutation in the TSHR gene that regulates thyroid-stimulating hormone receptors & disabled the seasonal regulation of reproduction (egg-laying), enabling them to lay all year long.
  • Domesticated chickens probably first spread from Southeast Asia thru trade in the Indus Valley 4000 years ago.
  • THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL CHICKEN PRODUCTION:  3000 years ago, chicken had become a popular commodity among Egyptians so, to maintain the temperature necessary for the birds to lay, they

mastered the technique of artificial incubation, which freed hens to put their time to better use by laying more eggs…The Egyptians constructed vast incubation complexes made up of hundreds of “ovens.”  Each oven was a large chamber, which was connected to a series of corridors and vents that allowed attendants to regulate tthe heat from fires fuled by straw and camel dung

  • Romans developed methods to fatten chickens, as they considered them a delicacy, but after the Roman period, chickens reverted to a smaller size (akin to today’s organic free-range vs. industrial birds?).
  • The large-scale production today’s chicken farmers are capable of came with the “fortification of feed with antibiotics and vitamins.”

Now they could be sheltered from weather and predators and fed a controlled diet in an environment designed to present the minimum of distractions from the essential business of eating.  Factory farming represents the chicken’s final step in its transformation into a protein-producing commodity. [bold emphasis added]

  • Modern chickens are extremely efficient grain-to-protein conversion systems:  they transform 2 lbs of feed into 1 lb of protein (compare to beef, which requires 7 lbs of grain per lb of protein, or pork, which represents a 3-to-1 ratio).
  • Artificial selection has rendered modern chickens so docile, when given access to outdoor space–a strategy that allows them to be marketed as “free-range”–the chickens prefer to hang out at the trough & await more food.
  • Finally, since opening its first branch there in 1987, KFC has become more profitable in China than the United States, where it is not literally synonymous with chicken (sorta like Kleenex for tissues or Vaseline for petroleum jelly or Google for search engine?).

Eat mor chikin?

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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