Arctic bird could boost weight gain in broiler hens

Researchers report that an arctic relative of the grouse has evolved to be able to move efficiently while carrying winter weight – a discovery that could have relevance to the welfare of broiler hens and future food production.

A team from the University of Manchester, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has studied the Svalbard rock ptarmigan within the arctic circle in collaboration with colleagues at Norway’s Tromso University.

Dr Jonathan Codd, who led the research team, said: “We can learn a lot from the Svalbard rock ptarmigan because it is so well adapted for life in an extreme environment. Like most wild birds, they put on fat for the winter, and this can be up to 32% of their body weight.

“We are hoping that the knowledge we gain from our studies will eventually help the poultrymeat industry to breed birds that can put on weight quickly, but have the necessary physiological features so that they don’t suffer as a result.”

In a previous paper, published in November 2010, Dr Codd’s team showed that ptarmigans are actually more energy efficient in their movements when they are heaviest, making them particularly good at conserving resources during the extreme arctic winters.

“You can see why this might be relevant to farmed birds that put on a lot of weight very quickly,” said Dr Codd. “For example, if ptarmigans have a particular musculoskeletal structure that means being heavy doesn’t cause them discomfort, and even makes them more efficient at storing energy, then we might be able to look for these features to breed into farmed birds.”

Prof Janet Allen, director of research at BBSRC said: “It is really important that we increase food production and that includes meat. Our aim is to do this sustainably and with the same or improved welfare of the animals that are farmed.

“Studies such as this can tell us a great deal about how to breed farmed animals that are fit, healthy and productive.”

* The report by the University of Manchester was published on 2 February in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Sciences.

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