The Evolution of the Chicken

For February 28, 2018

Starting our 13th Year

Hi WN@TL Fans,

I can think of only a few domesticated animals that provide us daily food without slaughter.

If the squeal were a meal, we could count on the pig;  but it’s not.  Perhaps the bee and its honey, although daily collection of honey would require quite a few hives in rotation.

Of course, there are the dairy animals.  Cow, sheep, goat, water buffalo (mozzarella), camel, reindeer, yak (yogurt in the yurt), donkey and even horse yield milk. Beyond milking mares, I’ve heard some Mongolian riders would bleed small amounts of blood from horses for a meal.  I think I’ll stick to the Wholesteens.

Then there’s egg-laying poultry:  turkey, duck, goose, pigeon, quail, guineafowl, peafowl, pheasant and more.  Chief among the poultry is the chicken, whose hens can lay 200 to 320 eggs a year, whose cocks can fight to live another day (or not), and who watches over our skies.   Cocks can crow after thrice-repeated denials, and Chanticleer can sound out a new morn.  Chickens can roost in coops and be grown by co-ops.  All this so we can pray: Give us this day our daily oeuf.

While many humans ponder whether the chicken preceded the egg, evolutionary biologists puzzle and probe to figure out from where the domesticated chicken came, and how it has spread all across our oval globe.

Tonight (February 28) Mark Berres of the Biotechnology Center gives the talk, entitled “The Evolution of the Chicken.”  It’s an expedition that will take us from the jungles and markets of southeast Asia to islands off South America.

Here’s how Mark describes his talk:

The domestication sequence of mammals such as dogs and farm animals is relatively well known. However, the origin of the domestic chicken has been debated since Darwin’s day and stretches back into evolutionary time to the mysterious origin of birds themselves. Of all the bird diversity that exists today, only four species — collectively called junglefowl — are considered possible ancestors of the modern chicken.

In his talk, Berres will explore this story, beginning by investigating the origins of birds (dinosaurs never really went extinct), along with where and when chickens were first domesticated. He will then assess how the cultural diffusion of domestic chickens has influenced human history and present some of his work with Vietnamese red junglefowl, a direct ancestor of the not-so-ordinary chicken.

About the Speaker

Berres earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After completing a postdoc in genomic sciences at UW–Madison, he accepted a faculty position on campus and taught Ornithology, Birds of Southern Wisconsin, and Avian Physiology from 2005 to 2016. He now conducts bioinformatics research in the Advanced Genome Analysis Resource Center at the UW’s Biotechnology Center. His ornithological experience dates back to 1990 and includes international and domestic work with passerines and nonpasserines — especially manakins, hummingbirds, and red junglefowl. He can often be found mist-netting birds at the Biocore Prairie Bird Banding Observatory on Saturday mornings during the summer and fall months.


Linguists and biologists use our words and our birds help us track the development of culture and the spread of humans and their companion animals across the lands and seas.Next week, we get to track the development of young children and their brains.  Dipesh Navsaria is our speaker on March 7, in the run-up to Brain Awareness Week. As some folks remind us: the human brain is the most complex object in the universe.   Not bad for clocking in at three pounds.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension