Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Chooks got the look: the soft tissues of Gallus gallus domesticus

Like many people, my experience with Gallus gallus domesticus is largely confined to consuming the poor creature in variety of rather tasty dishes; indeed, as I write this a deceased, plucked, eviscerated and recently defrosted Gallus gallus domesticus is on a plate in the fridge awaiting its fate as tonights Sunday roast dinner. This is a shame because for all it's familiarity the humble domestic chicken is a beautiful bird that is deserving of more attention outside of supermarket freezers and specialist breeders.  Darren over at Tet Zoo has discussed them briefly but yesterday I had the good fortune to visit the High Peak Poultry Show which was being held in Bakewell, Derbyshire and got the chance to see these birds in a different context to the usual.

Palaeontologists spend a lot of time wondering about how dinosaurs looked and moved in real life, and these thoughts recently were expressed by the recent shift in ideas about external appearance of dinosaurs that move away from the more traditional scaly-hided, shrink-wrapped Paulian beasts of the last forty years to the new anatomically rigorous yet rationally speculative reconstructions illustrated in the brilliant All Yesterdays or Matthew Martyniuk's equally inspirational Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs.

My trip to the poultry show added plenty of fuel to the fires of imagination when it comes to thinking about the reconstruction of the soft tissues of dinosaurs, as the various breeds of chicken present had a bewildering array of wattles, combs and other ornamentations. They were equally diverse in terms of body shape and type of feathery integument as well as the placement of feathers over the body. In short, some looked they had really funny haircuts, some quite weird faces and fleshy bits and others looked duller but distinctly dinosaurian and at least one breed looked cuddly. Never thought I'd say that about a chicken.

Here are the pictures. I took these with my iPhone and so they're not great quality and them chucks have a habit of not staying still at all. I didn't get the breed names of most of these birds so apologies for the lack of clear labelling. However, I hope they convey some of the beauty of a bird it's all too easy to take for granted.

First up, this chicken with a mostly naked head.

A more traditional looking bird, with an elaborate, flat comb.

The cuddly chicken.

This bird would not stay still hence the motion blur, but has very distinctive ear lobes.

Another chicken with prominent fleshy wattles, ear lobes and comb.

A lovely wattle/comb/feather combo on display here.

This breed is quite spectacular, and slightly weird (in a good way).
In the Tet Zoo Gallus post Darren notes this breed is a Transylvanian Naked-Necked Chicken. 

A very solid comb and prominent fleshy eyelid, plus feathery ear coverts.

Er, obviously not a chicken, but a Dewlap Toulouse gander.


  1. Nice pics! I am reminded of a rather hideous bewattled Deinonychus by Luis Rey. The second from last has a very, very powerful looking beak! That's a chook you wouldn't mess with...

  2. Nice pics indeed!
    I kept free-range chickens in Michigan for a few years and noticed a few things that may be useful for those doing reconstructions:
    Those bright red fleshy bits are red mostly (entirely?) from the high blood content, rather than from pigmentation. They almost certainly play a part in thermoregulation. They can be considerably paler on cooler days. They are also subject to frostbite in winter. Many of my birds had their combs and wattles "trimmed" by the winter weather. The tips would turn black and fall off, with no apparent ill effect.

    Also, those fleshy bits make inconvenient "handles" in a fight with conspecifics. That's why breeders of the fighting game cocks - see bird No. 1 - bred out the fleshy bits.

    So for example, I might guess that all those toothy cranky-looking deinonychosaurs were probably short on the fleshy wattles and combs. They were probably a feisty lot and any fleshy parts about the face would be a bloody mess after the first fight. Probably selected against fairly quickly if they ever evolved in the first place.

    I hope this helps add to greater logic in recons.