It may sound like the makings of a bad joke but answering the question of how chickens crossed the sea may soon provide more than just a punchline. A study of the mysterious ancestry of the feral chicken population that has overrun the Hawaiian Island of Kauai may aid efforts to curtail the damage done by invasive species in the future as well as help improve the biosecurity of domestic chicken breeds.
Domesticated chickens, humanity’s leading source of animal protein, are fighting rapidly-evolving pathogens and fertility issues probably caused by inbreeding. The Red Junglefowl, the chicken’s closest living relative, is under threat in Hawaii due to its native habitat dwindling.
The domestic chicken is believed to have been introduced to Hawaii by ancient Polynesians and through investigating the murky genetic origins of the Hawaiian chicken population scientists are gaining insights into the ongoing evolution of the population – which will translate into gains in the sustainability and efficacy of egg and poultry production.
Amongst other things it was discovered that some chickens were a perfect match for genetic data from ancient Kauai cave bones that predate Captain Cook’s 1778 discovery of Hawaii but others had genes that are found in chicken breeds developed recently in Europe and farmed worldwide.
But why do these variations matter? Studying the evolutionary forces at play among the feral chicken population may lead to the ability to create hardier breeds of domestic chickens. And that would be something to crow about.