Birds of a feather

Is the RJF extinct in the wild?

Published: Friday 15 December 2000

Birds of a feather

-- There are scientific theories on the monophyletic (tracing origin to one ancestor) and polyphyletic (many ancestors) origin of modern day fowls. The former goes with the theory of Charles Darwin (1868) that rjf is the sole ancestor of all the domestic chicken. He considered rjf the sole ancestor because, among other things, domestic fowls mated freely with rjf and progeny from this were fertile. The second theory says other three jungle fowl species -- Celyon, grey and green -- could also have contributed to the domestic fowl. The majority opinion, however, goes with the former theory attributing rjf as the mother of all domestic fowl.

If one goes by the popular belief on rjf origin , a paper, "Genetic endangerment of wild red jungle fowl Gallus gallus ?", published in 1999 in Bird Conservation International by two us scientists Lehr Brisbin and A Townsend Peterson, is bad news for India and rjf . According to the authors, rjf has been genetically-contaminated over the years and there might be no pure strain of the fowl left. A survey of the 745 museum specimens of the rjf suggests that "percentagewise, about 99 per cent of captive populations and potentially all of wild populations have been contaminated by introgression of genes from domestic or feral chicken".

The researchers say that this is evident from observing the male eclipse plumage, an important indicator of a pure rjf . Although the eclipse plumage is somewhat observed in central and western populations, it has not been observed in eastern populations. The plumage is believed to have disappeared from Malaysia and the neighbouring countries by the 1920s. In extreme Southeast Asia and the Philippines, it is said to have disappeared even before scientific documentation began around the 1860s. The good news is the researchers did find some pure stock, though dismally low scattered in South Asia. In India and Nepal, the percentage of specimens having eclipse plumage was calculated at 18.2 per cent and 19.4 per cent in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Other typical characteristics that were taken into consideration were the dusky black legs and the lack of comb in the hen. So far, the authors have only taken the external morphology into consideration, but at present they are preparing to initiate deoxyribonucleic acid ( dna) studies in collaboration with several chicken genome laboratories.

The authors claim that the only pure rjf strains are the ones with them. Collected from western India in the 1960s, they now number 50-100. "They have been kept under typical avicultural conditions at several aviaries across usa ," says Peterson, who is also associate professor and curator, Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Centre, University of Kansas.

Peterson describes the species as "critically endangered". "This is funny given that the species was not even imagined to be in trouble prior to our work, but it may well be effectively extinct in the wild... replaced by chickens-in-jungle fowl-clothing," he adds.

Hopeful, still
Although the researchers have given evidence on the genetic contamination of rjf , other experts say that the scenario is not as pitiable as portrayed by them. "I know that there are still pure populations of red jungle fowl in several areas," says Ludo Pinceel, coordinator for research and education of the European Jungle Fowl Group ( ejfg ), Belgium. Agrees Satya Kumar of Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, "There are good stocks in several protected areas of India like the Kalesar reserve forest in Haryana. These stocks show many pure rjf features." He is also optimistic that the fowl population in Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have no or negligible gene contamination, but has no scientific studies to back his claim.

There are apprehensions, however, on what "pure" means. Given the status of poor research and conservation, it is very hard to give correct facts and figures. According to Rahul Kaul, South Asia coordinator of the World Pheasant Association, the debate and the apprehensions will continue till the genetic mapping of rjf is done. But this is easier said than done. "The basic problem is we do not have a definite dna of a rjf that we can call 'pure' so we can compare other rjf dna s. The us, apparently, has the right markers," he says.

Although initiatives have been taken to develop markers and study rjf genes, there are hurdles on the way. Besides the money factor, research on genetics is turning out to be very time consuming, says Kaul. "But now that the issue of contamination has been raised, no research will be complete without taking the genetic aspects into account," he says.

T here are a lot of references to the rjf in books written during the period of the British Raj. It has been mentioned as a favourite game bird. But that is all about the information that is there on rjf during the last two centuries, says Kaul. "There are a few rjf in zoos. But the concept of record keeping or observation of the birds is just not there. Even the origin of many rjf in zoos is not known," he adds.

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