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Evolution or art? The chicken as a human artifact

Male red junglefowl/
Lip Kee Yap ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Today’s chicken is a far cry from the traditional jungle fow, for better or worse, as a bone study shows:

The quest for scale and efficacy has reimagined the chicken’s body as well as life. The pursuit of meat in a short period of time has resulted in breeds with rapidly growing muscle.

– In turn, resulting in a change in the center of gravity downwards

– Reduced pelvic and limb muscle mass (think thighs and drumsticks)

– Creating a low-slung, wide body chicken with decreasing steadiness and locomotion

– And an increase in bone-related diseases, osteopathies.

What might we learn from our long-standing relationship with chickens? There are simple lessons that both of us do better when adequately fed and housed. And more nuanced messages, that too much of a good thing, like chicken feed, can alter our body and both alleviate and promote disease. We have raised the broiler chicken to an unprecedented size, and while it is easy enough to see the changes we have brought to the chicken, should we not consider how the chicken and our quest for scale and efficiency may have changed us? Chuck Dinerstein, M.D., “Reading Chicken Bones: How Sapiens Changed The Planet” at American Council on Science and Health

We’ve probably had even more influence on the dog, of course. But here’s the interesting thing: When dogs run wild, they just go back to being wolfhounds after a few generations. Apparently, feral chickens just breed with still wild fowl and revert to ancestral types. Just how really significant irreversible changes occur remains unclear.

Abstract from the open-source paper.

Changing patterns of human resource use and food consumption have profoundly impacted the Earth’s biosphere. Until now, no individual taxa have been suggested as distinct and characteristic new morphospecies representing this change. Here we show that the domestic broiler chicken is one such potential marker. Human-directed changes in breeding, diet and farming practices demonstrate at least a doubling in body size from the late medieval period to the present in domesticated chickens, and an up to fivefold increase in body mass since the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, the skeletal morphology, pathology, bone geochemistry and genetics of modern broilers are demonstrably different to those of their ancestors. Physical and numerical changes to chickens in the second half of the twentieth century, i.e. during the putative Anthropocene Epoch, have been the most dramatic, with large increases in individual bird growth rate and population sizes. Broiler chickens, now unable to survive without human intervention, have a combined mass exceeding that of all other birds on Earth; this novel morphotype symbolizes the unprecedented human reconfiguration of the Earth’s biosphere. – The broiler chicken as a signal of a human reconfigured biosphere Carys E. Bennett , Richard Thomas , Mark Williams , Jan Zalasiewicz , Matt Edgeworth , Holly Miller , Ben Coles , Alison Foster , Emily J. Burton and Upenyu Marume Published:12 December 2018https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180325

See also: Earlier Than Thought: Dogs Lived With Humans In The Americas 10 Kya

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