CONCERNS FOR THE GENETIC INTEGRITY AND CONSERVATION STATUS OF THE RED JUNGLEFOWL
by I. Lehr Brisbin, Jr.
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory
Aiken, SC 29802
with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 1997, 2(3):1-2
The following article is for information on 2 poultry breeds with which I deal in my research here at Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. My work with our strain of what I believe to be the only genetically pure wild Red Junglefowl in captivity today creates a special concern which is now shared by others worldwide to assure that these birds will not be lost from existence. . . . [These birds] are extremely difficult to keep in captivity anywhere near other domestic poultry because of their great susceptibility and mortality when exposed to common domestic poultry diseases. These birds are also extremely wild and flighty and usually injure themselves flying against their pen walls if kept anywhere near a great deal of public activity and disturbance.
Recently, concerns have become focused on the issue of the genetic integrity and conservation status of free ranging populations of Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus ssp.) as well as for those currently held in avicultural collections. These concerns were summarized in a presentation which I recently made on this subject entitled, "Is the Red Junglefowl One of the Most Endangered Birds in Southeast Asia?" This presentation was made as a part of a symposium on tropical Asian ornithology which was held in August,1995 in Cincinnati, Ohio, in conjunction with the annual meetings of the American Ornithologists' Union and under the joint sponsorship of that organization and the Oriental Bird Club. Following that presentation there was a most gratifying expression of interest on the part of ornithologists, aviculturalists and conservation biologists with regard to this issue. I have now been invited to summarize that presentation to appear for publication in Forktail, the journal of the Oriental Bird Club. That paper is now in the process of being researched and written. This process, however, has brought to light a number of issues which I feel are now important for immediate dissemination amongst those familiar with this bird in its native Asian habitats as well as those who might be concerned for its conservation status in captivity.
Briefly, applying the standard criteria of Delacour (1947) for morphological indicators of pure wild stock suggests that there may now only be one flock of genetically pure Red Junglefowl left in captivity. These criteria include the complete absence of a comb in the female, horizontal tail carriage in both sexes, dark or slate gray leg color and an annual eclipse molt in the male. To my knowledge, these traits are all shown only by birds in a flock which I obtained from stock imported to the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Dr. Gardiner Bump as part of the then U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's exotic game bird importation program. These birds were trapped in North-Central India in the vicinity of Dehra Dun, after taking great care to ensure that there were no sources of free-ranging feral domestic or village chickens in the vicinity. The appearance and completely wild behavior of the birds in this particular flock contrast strikingly with those of any other captive strain of Red Junglefowl of which I am aware. I am, therefore, greatly concerned that birds from this particular flock should be disseminated (without charge) to establish additional satellite flocks to protect against the possibility of a catastrophic occurrence befalling these birds at the present propagation facility where they are all now being held under the care of a most dedicated private aviculturist in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (USA). These birds are extremely wary, flighty and impossible to exhibit satisfactorily anywhere under any conditions in which they will be disturbed by public visitation. They need to be kept in secluded facilities and be isolated from all forms of domestic poultry from whom they quickly contract a variety of common diseases to which they rapidly succumb.
In the course of researching material for my paper which is being prepared for publication in Forktail, I had the opportunity to examine study skins of Red Junglefowl in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This material suggested to me that birds showing these same morphological criteria of pure wild stock (e.g., a lack of comb in the females) are also apparently quite rare in the wild and may have indeed been so since before the turn of the century. I would be grateful for any information that anyone could provide me concerning any study specimens of Red Junglefowl in which the adult females show no comb whatsoever and/or the male can be documented as showing an eclipse molt. Considering the degree to which human civilization has continued to invade even the remotest habitats of the Red Junglefowl's range in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that any populations of this unique bird still exist in areas that are isolated from the crowing-range of at least some source of domestic/feral village chickens which could provide a source of genetic contamination to the wild stock. I personally feel that molecular genetic profiles of both wild and captive Red Junglefowl populations are currently in order, and could provide important information for the genetic "screening" of populations of this species. Unfortunately, however, most of those molecular genetic studies of junglefowl that have recently been published in the literature (e.g., Fumihito et al., 1994) have not provided sufficient information to ensure the reader that the birds from which their samples were obtained did indeed meet the ecological, morphological and/or behavioral criteria that would guarantee their genetic purity as uncontaminated wild stock. In some cases, in fact, DNA profiles of Red Junglefowl have been based on material from zoo populations whose genetic purity and freedom from hybridization, on the basis of the birds' behavior alone, would seem to me to be open to question.
Finally, I cannot help but wonder about the possible existence of a possible cryptic species of Red Junglefowl as represented by these birds that were brought out of India by Dr. Bump in the 1960s and 1970s, since they show so many unique morphological traits and behavioral characteristics that would suggest to me that they would have been most unlikely candidates for taming and domestication by earlier civilizations. My own behavioral studies (Brisbin, 1969) of these birds, moreover, suggest some possibility of beginning reproductive isolation between these birds and the more standard "zoo strain" of Red Junglefowl! Is it possible that the domestic chicken was derived from a tamer and less flighty cryptic species of wild Red Junglefowl stock in which the hens always had combs and the males seldom, if ever, showed an eclipse molt? These questions can only be answered with further studies and surveys of birds in the wild and museum collections, and particularly by a molecular genetic analysis of these unusual birds here in our collection.
I would be most interested to correspond with anyone familiar with this species either in the wild or in captivity. I would particularly like to hear from anyone who might have more detailed information about the exact locations and derivations of the birds brought to this country by Dr. Bump. Without this information, I fear the possibility that this unique wild ancestor of a worldwide multi-billion dollar poultry industry might be quietly slipping into genetic extinction before we become aware of and can appropriately respond to the situation.
Brisbin, I. L., Jr. (1969). Behavioral differentiation of wildness in two strains of Red Junglefowl (abstract). Amer. Zool. 9:1072.
Delacour, J. (1947). Birds of Malaysia. New York: Macmillan.
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