Broiler chickens: The defining species of the Anthropocene?

Climate & Capitalism - Mar 19 2019 -  DARRIN QUALMAN

Chicken meat production, 1950-2010. Adapted from Darrin Qualman,

Forget jokes about crossing the road. New research identifies chickens as a vivid symbol of the transformation of the biosphere in our time

How will future geologists recognize the Anthropocene? What features of the geological record will enable them to say that a particular layer of rock or sediment was formed after the Holocene ended?

Many suggestions have been made, including the presence of radioactive fallout, plastics, fuel ash, concrete, and various chemical pollutants that leave long-lasting and readily identifiable traces. All were rare or non-existent before the second world war, and all have been widely deposited since.

Until recently, no one has argued that the Anthropocene might be identified, as many previous epochal transitions are, by the fossils of a new species of plant or animal. The implicit assumption has been that the Anthropocene is too new and short for a new species to have evolved, let alone a new species that might fossilize in a form that future geologists could distinguish from older species.

That view is no longer tenable. An important new paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science (RSOS), makes a convincing case that modern broiler chickens are a “distinct and characteristic new morphospecies ….[that] symbolizes the unprecedented human reconfiguration of the Earth’s biosphere.”[1]

At any given time, there are some 22.7 billion domesticated chickens on Earth, 20 times more than any wild bird species. The total biomass of domesticated poultry, mostly chickens, is three times the biomass of all wild birds combined. Astonishing as those figures are, they substantially understate the overwhelming presence of chickens in the biosphere because, unlike wild birds, chickens live only five to seven weeks from hatching to slaughter, so many times 22.7 billion pass through the vast maw of industrial agriculture each year.