Chickens are one of the most common and familiar domestic animals in the world. They provide us with eggs, meat, feathers, and entertainment. But have you ever wondered where they came from and who are their closest relatives in the animal kingdom? You may be surprised to learn that chickens are not only related to other birds, but also to some of the most fearsome creatures that ever walked the earth!
The chicken’s ancient ancestor: T-Rex!
According to Earth Buddies, genetic evidence suggests that the chicken is the closest living relative of the famous carnivorous giant, Tyrannosaurus rex! Birds that would have been recognizable as chickens emerged from the evolutionary pool around 10 million years ago, 55 million years after the last T-Rex roamed the earth. The chicken’s use as a meat and egg bird has given rise to dozens of breeds, some of which still retain some of the features of their dinosaur ancestor, such as large claws, scaly legs, and fierce temperament.
The chicken’s wild cousin: Jungle Fowl
The bird from which all modern breeds of chicken descended is the Jungle Fowl ( Gallus gallus ). It was – and still is – a native of Southeast Asia. Approximately 5000 years ago these wild birds were first domesticated, for a combination of reasons – meat, eggs, cock-fighting, and various ritual practices. Like the red junglefowl (the closest wild relative of domestic chickens), feral chickens will roost in bushes in order to avoid predators at night. Feral chickens typically form social groups composed of a dominant cockerel, several hens, and subordinate cocks.
The chicken’s exotic relatives: Other Galliformes
The chicken belongs to the order Galliformes, which includes about 300 species of ground-dwelling birds that are mainly found in Eurasia, Africa, and South America. Some of the chicken’s well-known relatives in this order are the turkey, the quail, the pheasant, and the peacock. But there are also some more exotic relatives of the chicken that you may not have heard of, such as:
- The guineafowl: A group of African birds that have distinctive black and white plumage and a helmet-like crest on their heads. They are noisy and social birds that live in flocks and feed on seeds, insects, and small animals.
- The megapode: A group of Australasian birds that have large feet and claws for digging. They are unique among birds for using external sources of heat, such as decaying vegetation or volcanic activity, to incubate their eggs.
- The curassow: A group of Neotropical birds that have long tails and crests. They are mostly frugivorous (fruit-eating) and some species have a casque (a horn-like structure) on their bills.
- The hoatzin: A bird native to South America that has a colorful plumage and a fan-shaped crest. It is also known as the stinkbird because of its foul-smelling fermentation process in its crop (a pouch in its throat). It is one of the few birds that can digest leaves and has claws on its wings when young.
As you can see, chickens have a rich and diverse family tree that spans across continents and time periods. They are not only related to other domesticated birds, but also to some of the most amazing and bizarre creatures in nature. Next time you see a chicken, remember that it is not just a simple farm animal, but a living link to a fascinating evolutionary history!