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Living in the ‘Age of the Chicken’

Move over humans, there’s a new dominant species on Earth – the chicken. According to researchers from the UK and South Africa, the most prominent marker of our age will not be our great monuments or industrial pollution, but the fossilised bones of hundreds of billions of domestic chickens.

Today, there are about seven billion people on Earth and our numbers combined with the increasing power of our technology has prompted some geologists to suggest a new term called the “Anthropocene” to denote the era since 1950.

The argument is that humanity’s influence has become so great that we are actually having a direct impact on the geological record as distinct as an ice age.

However, there is another candidate for top dog – or bird in this case. Perhaps the new age should be called the Orniocene, or Age of the Chicken.

This is because, while there are a mere seven billion people, there is a standing population of 22.7 billion chickens, and we consume another 65.8 billion chickens every year.

This makes the domestic broiler an order of magnitude more abundant than any other bird on Earth. The domestic duck only tops out a 1.1 billion and the chicken outclasses the top 144 wild bird species combined.

What’s more, chickens are raised on every continent except Antarctica and are universally consumed. And, while wildfowl tend to be eaten by scavengers and are rare in the fossil record, these hundreds of billions of chickens find their bones interred in landfills marked by anaerobic conditions that are ideal for fossilising last night’s Buffalo wing leavings.

If future archaeologists aren’t already overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of chicken fossils, there are other signs to mark this the Age of the Chicken.

In the early 1950s, US poultry farmers launched the Chicken-of-Tomorrow Program, which used selective breeding and new industrial farming methods to create a new chicken that was larger, five-times heavier, had more meat, matured much faster, and laid more eggs.

Fed on a diet with a higher percentage of grain, these new chickens have a never-before-seen skeletal morphology, pathology, bone geochemistry, and genetics – all of which will show up in the fossil record.

In addition, the modern broiler can’t survive without human assistance, meaning that not only will the chickens leave their mark on the epoch, but also the technology, land use, feed stocks, power supplies, robots, and infrastructure needed to breed, support, transport, and butcher this capon army. Not to mention the eggs.

So, we may have to reconcile ourselves to the thought that the Earth belongs to the chicken. We just live in it.

Source:; The Royal Society Publishing

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