In the face of a changing climate, scientists are contemplating how they can breed more resilient animals — and they think going bald might be the answer, for chickens at least.
For the past few years, Carl Schmidt and his team of researchers from the University of Delaware have been busy looking through the DNA of chickens, trying to unravel various species’ genetic codes so that they can figure out how to beat one key problem: how to stop chickens from dying due to elevated temperatures as climate change grips the planet.
There is a known risk that chickens will overheat due to warm weather. Their full plumage tends to trap heat and the chickens, while they can cool themselves down to an extent, are relatively inefficient at doing so. This opens them up to the dangers of heat stroke, but also has a wider effect, making them more susceptible to disease and less likely to breed successfully. As such, a global temperature hike threatens many species of fowl, especially in places like the United States, because they are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to survive — that is, unless they have a helping hand. That’s where Schmidt and his team, backed by a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, come in.
We know that some chickens are better adapted to live in warmer climates — because they already do. Chicken species from places like Uganda have evolved to have featherless necks and heads. This allows them to cool down more quickly than their all-over feathered American cousins like the Jersey Giant. They also appear to be more hardy when it comes to tolerating warmer temperatures as well. That’s not that surprising but if the researchers can pick out the exact differences in DNA that enable these characteristics, they hope that they can efficiently breed those traits into global poultry populations so that we’re not facing a mass chicken die-out as temperatures climb.
So far, the researchers say they’ve identified around 200 genes that appear to be useful for heat management. They estimate that in around five years time they could begin to breed chickens to try testing these genes one or two at a time. This process will be slow but steady, and it doesn’t just stop at heat management. Schmidt and his team are also looking at other areas in which the physiology of chickens might be adjusted to help against climate change. For instance, if we could breed chickens to use food in a more efficient way, as some species already do, we could cut down on the carbon footprint and emissions that are spent in transporting chicken feed across the country.
At a time when we’re hyper aware of genetic modification, many have balked at the prospect of creating so-called “super chickens,” but in reality this kind of selective breeding, although admittedly more precise, isn’t genetic modification in the sense that we have come to understand it, and it’s essentially what we’ve been doing for thousands of years where we’ve bred cattle or, more recently, even dogs for dog shows: we select traits that we want (artificial selection) and we breed toward maximizing them. That’s not to say that this practice of animal use isn’t objectionable, to many vegans for instance there are a host of possible issues to raise, but serves to clarify that we shouldn’t be terrified of the process simply because it comes with a lab setting attached.
Schmidt believes this research is necessary to avert a global food crisis. Many nations rely, at least in part, on poultry, and so tackling this problem should be a primary concern, yet many farmers appear unwilling to act.
“You talk to farmers today and they’re not concerned,” Schmidt is quoted as saying. “These people are thinking one flock, one generation at a time. But that’s the reason this kind of work needs to take place in an lab environment. Is it important for next year? Probably not. But is it important a decade or so down the line? Absolutely.”
The researchers estimate that it could be two decades before they have chickens that are suitably heat resistant. A warning comes with this research, though: there’s only so much that scientists can do in this area, and if temperatures continue to climb and we fail to act on the wider problem of climate change, no amount of tinkering will be able to absorb the devastating effects of temperature rise.
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