Climate-resilience of rural chicken is in the genes

The genetic make-up of indigenous chickens has changed to better cope with  climatic challenges, giving hope to future breeding of more productive and climate-resilient livestock, a study in Ethiopia has found.

According to researchers, backyard poultry farming provides about 97 per cent of Ethiopia’s total poultry meat and egg production. African indigenous chickens are known to cope with harsh environmental conditions but how their genes contribute to this resilience was unknown. The researchers analyzed environmental and genomic data relating to 245 Ethiopian indigenous chickens from diverse climatic regions including hot and temperate zones to identify the environmental and genetic drivers of local adaptation.

Researchers identified genes associated with adaptation to six key environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall that impacts water availability, and soil cover that affects food availability for foraging chickens, says the study published in Molecular Biology and Evolution.

The results of this study are significant for both smallholders and policymakers, particularly in the context of rapid environmental change in many parts of the world, including Africa,” says Almas Gheyas, the study’s lead author and a researcher in animal genetics and genomics at the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health and Roslin Institute.

Gheyas explains that indigenous chickens’ ability to develop traits for better adaptation to climatic challenges in their local environment could improve their survival rate and ability to find food, breed and produce meat and eggs.

Highlighting the significance of poultry farming in Africa, Gheyas adds: “Some 5.7 million tonnes of chicken meat were produced in Africa in 2018, which was an increase of 4.2 per cent from 2017 levels.”The findings could help future breeding programmes to improve the productivity and climate resilience of indigenous rural chickens, she tells SciDev.Net.

Chickens were chosen for the study as they display a wide environmental tolerance, being found in practically all areas of human settlement around the world – both in tropical and temperate regions.The study could be replicated in other African countries to guide breeding programmes that promote better productivity and resilience to climate change.