red jungle fowl

The Father of All Chickens – A Short Story of the Red Jungle fowl

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The Red Jungle fowl is an ancient bird said to have roamed the jungles of Asia as early as 5,000- 8,000 years ago. It sustained generations of mankind and appeared in early cave art in parts of SE Asia. The birds still run wild today. This tropical member of the pheasant family roams areas of India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even the Hawaiian Islands. The Red Junglefowl is the father of all chickens.

In July 2012, Dr. Alice Storey of the University of New England and her associates made a big discovery: the Red Jungle fowl was the ancestor of all modern chickens. This team of scientists studied the mitochondrial DNA of ancient chicken bones collected from a huge variety of geographical locations, including Spanish Colonial Florida, Europe, Chile, Thailand, and Pacific Islands. The results? Every modern chicken breed descended from the Red Jungle fowl. According to Science Daily, humans kept Red Jungle fowl as livestock 8,000 years ago. It’s believed that they were first kept for cockfighting. Later, they were used for religious reasons. Then, the Red Jungle fowl was raised for food.

Since then, hundreds of unique chicken breeds have emerged. Just how did one breed of jungle birds turn into hundreds of distinct chicken breeds? Swedish zoologists Daniel Nätt, Per Jensen, and associates tackled that question in early 2012. The results of their study were published in BMC Genomics. Nätt and Jensen studied how individual patterns of gene activity in the brains of modern chickens differ from the original gene activity patterns in the Red Jungle fowl. Throughout their research, they found that hundreds of genes showed distinct differences.  Domestication has led to a variety of epigenetic changes.  The greater amount of methylation in the genes of modern chicken breeds may have something to do with the huge amount of variation within the chicken species in such a short period of time.

The male Red Jungle fowl is even more brightly colored than its tame counterpart as well as larger. Deep red facial skin, a metallic-green tail, and orange or red crown and neck feathers make this fowl stand out. Females are smaller and a diminutive brown. In the wild, the Red Jungle fowl lives in small, mixed-gender flocks with three to five hens per each cock. Some groups have been spotted with up to twenty birds. Young cocks live in isolated groups of 2-3 birds. The Red Jungle fowl subsists on seeds, fruit, and insects. There are five subspecies of Jungle fowl recognized today. All varieties are extremely shy and will scurry or fly into underbrush for cover at any sign of danger.

An endangered species in some parts of the world, including Singapore, the Red Jungle fowl is affected by habitat loss. Poaching is also a problem, too. Yet inbreeding with domestic chickens is perhaps the greatest threat to this ancient species.  Many Red Jungle fowl held in captivity have turned out to be genetically mixed. The prevalence of this puts the breed at a great risk for extinction.

It’s an amazing opportunity for mankind to be able to examine the chicken’s early ancestor and its modern offspring side-by-side. There aren’t many chances in life to see evolution so distinctly. However, without some serious conservation efforts, this is an opportunity which will not be afforded to our grandchildren. The Red Jungle fowl’s future lies on the line…. What can we do to ensure that this breed doesn’t join the list of extinct species?

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