Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Chickens going Feral, must be Jungle Fever

      Chickens have been a domesticated part of human civilization for roughly the last 8,000 years. Before  traveling throughout the world and farming them for our needs, they were wild animals and found predominantly in Southeastern Asia. Today they remain a major part of our dietary needs for protein thanks to the size of the poultry industry. This is only possible if they stay in our care on our farms, but for various reasons their escape into the wild occurs out of our control. In the particular case of the Kauai chickens of Hawaii there has been a few decades worth of breeding through natural selection.

      Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) are considered to be the ancestors of our cock-a-doodling feathery friends. In Kauai chickens that were raised on farms have occasionally been swept away during major storm systems and found themselves amid their ancestral partners, and they seem to have diligently contributed to what is now a hybridized population. These birds went on for decades without human dependence for their growth. What we see now is the expression of wild genes that we as consumers do not select for in our farm-raised variety of chickens. The feral variety make shorter versions of the kinds of calls that we hear on our farms at those ungodly hours, the males tend to have larger crowns, and their plumage is often speckled with various reds, greens and browns throughout. Another thing we breed chickens for is neglecting to brood their eggs so that we can go and collect them when needed. These feral chickens on the other hand don't like that at all, and it has been found that the gene for brooding is among a large number of genes that made the Red Junglefowl much more likely to survive in the wild. 

      The people of Kauai for the most part accept them as part of the local culture. It certainly gives scientists a reminder of how we consider the way species evolved. And also raises the question, is feralization the opposite of domestication?

      I've read through these articles with a pretty open mind. I can agree with Dr. Gering and the research his team made, especially for bringing up that idea. The next step after feralization should be to become a wild species, a unique species that has evolved and is well established in the environment. In my opinion the answer cannot be a clear yes or no because if left alone they will no longer be the species that we domesticated. In the research they conducted it points out that this is what is going on. These birds aren't becoming Red Junglefowl, and they definitely aren't growing up to be featured in a sandwich at McDonald's® like their cousins in poultry farms. The genes they share right now make them something in between, and while they continue to live in the wild they will eventually be considered to be a new species. I think this is what makes life and evolution so interesting to study. Distinctions between what is known and what is new in a species can be blurred by altering a few genes and their will to survive.

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