Old Yeller (Legs)

This is a grey junglefowl, which is on display at the Oxford University Natural History Museum. There are three other closely related species of junglefowl including the red, the green, and the Ceylon. Domestic chickens are almost exclusively descended from the red junglefowl, but not entirely. They can’t be: chicken legs are just too yellow!

Think about popular images of chickens. Foghorn Leghorn. Chicken Little. All other fast food depictions and cartoon chickens. They always have yellow legs. But the red junglefowl has grey legs. So how is it that domestic chickens more often than not have yellow legs?

Take a look at the grey junglefowl’s legs. OK, it’s an old taxidermy specimen, it’s seen better days but the legs - do they look a little bit yellow? A recent genetic study has shown that modern chickens possess a special yellow-leg gene that came from the species you are looking at, the grey junglefowl. How did this happen?

Chickens were domesticated in East Asia, where the red junglefowl lives. When they migrated with people though South Asia, they likely encountered populations of Gallus sonnerati, and some of the offspring between domestic and wild birds possessed some grey junglefowl traits.

Just like many of us have a little bit of Neanderthal in our genes, domestic chickens have just enough grey junglefowl in them to produce those iconic yellow legs.

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