Breeding Bald Poultry To Withstand Global Warming

To prepare North American chickens for future weather, researchers map genetics of their featherless, hot-climate cousins


Picture of a chicken.Pier/Getty Images

Rising global temperatures pose a major risk to world food supplies. When it comes to chickens, geneticist Carl Schmidt is working to prepare the most-dined-upon North American breeds to withstand greater heat stress in coming decades.

As Lauren Rothman reports for Modern Farmer, Schmidt and his University of Delaware team are collaborating with researchers from Iowa and North Carolina state universities to decode the DNA of chicken breeds in Brazil and Uganda that have featherless heads and necks.

These birds find baldness a virtue, not a curse, because the adaptation “allows the south-of-the-equator poultry to throw off additional body heat and stay cool in their scorching native climes,” writes Rothman.

They are generally found in small backyard flocks, Schmidt tells Rothman, rather than industrial agriculture complexes, and “are under constant selection pressure” to survive intense heat and other environmental challenges, traits he and others are eager to see introduced to North American breeds:

Schmidt’s team’s work is part of a five-year, $4.7 million climate change grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Three years into the project, the geneticists have gathered just about all the data they’ll need and will spend the next two years analyzing it: mapping the birds’ gene sequences in order to determine the best approach for getting those good, heat-resistant genes into American chickens without taking along all the genetic “baggage,” as Schmidt calls it, that’s unnecessary to duplicate in the hybrid chickens.

Once Schmidt and his colleagues have deciphered and analyzed the genetic codes of these hardy African and South American poultry, they hope American producers will crossbreed them to North American birds. It could take around 10 generations of chickens, carefully bred, to arrive at new heat-resistant breeds that can successfully reproduce on their own.

Poultry production is booming worldwide, as Rothman reports, with global food experts projecting that it will top 100 million tons in 2015, and 143 million tons by 2030. An interruption in this supply could cause a humanitarian disaster.

“My concern is feeding nine billion people in 2050,” Schmidt said. “That’s going to be a challenge. And it’s going to be made worse if the climate does continue to change.”

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