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Why did the Chicken Cross the Sea? To Save Our Poultry Farmers

Mar 27, 2015 06:18 PM EDT

Chickens, it seems, did a lot more than cross roads and make bad jokes. Researchers recently took a closer look at Hawaii's mysterious feral chicken population - wild hens that have overrun the Island of Kauai. Before this work, people could only speculate as to how the birds got there, but now experts suspect that their strange origins may help save the poultry industry.

According to a study recently published in the journal Molecular Ecology,  there are two kinds of chickens that can commonly be found on the island. The first, predictably, is the domesticated chicken - a common fowl that puts eggs in the fridge and meat on your plate. The other kind is commonly referred to as the Red Junglefowl, a close relative of the common chicken that is believed to have been introduced to Hawaii by ancient Polynesians.

As things stand, there are not many of this second variety left in Hawaii. Although they aren't threatened on an international scale, Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) are currently disappearing from the Hawaiian islands due to habitat loss. Meanwhile, the fowl currently found in Asia - from where these birds originated - are threatened by rampant hybridization with other invasive cockerels.

And according to research lead Eben Gering of Michigan State University, that's some bad news, as the unique genetic information found in these animals may very well help to save the poultry industry.

"It is crucial that we identify and conserve the genetic variation that still remains in the Red Junglefowl," he reiterated in a recent release. "This variation could soon be essential for the improvement or evolutionary rescue of commercial chicken breeds."

So what does he mean by that? Hawaii has offered researchers a unique setting to which they can compare how Red Junglefowl responds to the same rapidly evolving diseases that currently threaten the domestic industry.

As you could expect, the feral birds proved far more resilient than their domestic counterparts, who are frequently treated with a cocktail of antibiotics in their feed. As antibiotic resistance continues to spread around the world, researchers are now proposing that genetics are the next best way to tackle diseases.

As things stand, Gering hopes to keep close tabs on a Red Junglefowl population in Kauai that is rapidly interbreeding with domestic chickens. While this could muddy the junglefowl gene pool, it may also reveal how unique traits can help domestic chickens better resist disease.

"We are eager to learn which combinations of genes and traits are emerging from this 'evolutionary experiment,' and to see whether our findings can translate to gains in the sustainability or efficacy of egg and poultry production," Gering concluded.

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