“Chickens: The only animals you eat before they are born and after they are dead.” — Unknown
In a literal sense, egg-laying animals have existed far longer than chickens.
So, there you have it, the old riddle solved?
This age-old question also touches on the cyclical nature of existence.
If a chicken came from an egg, and an egg gave birth to a chicken, which came first in this ouroboros of our delicious feathery friends?
Who Laid the First Eggs?
Before we dive into the world of chickens, let's take a step back and explore their ancient relatives, the first amniotes.
These little lizard-like creatures made their grand entrance onto the evolutionary stage about 312 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period, or roughly around the time Clint Eastwood first began shooting people for money.
While spreading across the land, these "basal amniotes" evolved from their amphibious reptiliomorph predecessors, they soon split into two distinct groups: the synapsids and the sauropsids.
Now, assuming those are real words and you haven’t passed out from boredom yet, you might find yourself wondering, "Where do our cocky friends fit into all of this?"
Well, chickens are part of the sauropsid lineage, which means they share a common ancestry with those early, lizard-like amniotes.
These evolved into birds, which then took flight around 150 million years ago, and millions of years (and hundreds of Eastwood cowboy movies) later, roughly 3,500 years ago, our clucky egg-laying companions first popped out.
What’s in an Egg?
But there’s something special about our hennish friends.
The protein essential for the formation of chicken eggs, called OV-17, is only found in chicken ovaries. Without it, there would be no shell and no chicken egg.
But is a chicken egg an egg laid by a chicken, or an egg that just contains a chicken? (Now say that 3 times fast.)
To put it another way, if an alien laid an egg in which you hatched, would it be an alien egg or a you-egg?
And would it taste just as good on a McDonald’s breakfast menu?
There are many nuances to life’s eggsistential questions, n’est pas?
The Evolutionary Perspective
On the other side of the equation, genetic information is passed on through DNA, with small mutations occurring over thousands of generations, eventually leading to the evolution of new species.
Think of the different finch beak shapes Darwin saw in the Galapagos Islands, or how animals experience island gigantism, or the strange apricotish hue of recent presidents.
But essentially, one day 3,500 years ago, two almost-chickens got all the most horny and mated, then their genetic material combined with a slight mutation, giving birth to an egg that resulted in what we now recognize as a chicken.
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Did you know there are more than 33 billion chickens on Earth?
That leaves just over 4 chickens—plus a few nuggets—for every single one of us. So, before you ask for another raise at work, remind yourself how chickenless your life currently is.
Those mighty fowls also lay more than 87 million metric tons of eggs every year! And of course, you’re now wondering just how many McMuffins that can make, right?
Well, if each egg is around 50 grams, we’re looking at 1,726,000,000,000 McSad excuses for sustenance masquerading as breakfast options a year.
It would take you over 50 years to count that high, let alone eat that many eggs (or those tragically underwhelming, sloppily assembled, cardboard mass-produced mockery of a breakfast sandwich called a McMuffin).
But where did these egg-laying marvels come from?
Genetic studies suggest that the chickens we know today probably came from SouthEast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
They’re also descended from these flowery flocks called red junglefowl:
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The Proto-Chicken and the Chicken Egg
So, an egg-laying species produced a proto-chicken, which then laid a chicken-containing egg.
That chicken then grew up and laid chicken eggs.
But is that egg containing a chicken a chicken egg or a proto-chicken egg?
If it's a chicken egg, then the first chicken came from a chicken egg.
If it's a proto-chicken egg, then the chicken came from a proto-chicken egg.
Whether that egg is considered a chicken egg or a proto-chicken egg might ultimately depend on how we choose to define a "chicken egg," but the fact remains that the egg was the starting point for the chicken as we know it today.
Either way, the age-old question has finally been cracked—Eggs came before chickens!
Written by JJ Puk Puk Pukaaak Pryor
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Haven't heard much about it lately but it is a big problem here. People were told to get rid of their bird feeders to help keep it spreading and there was supposedly a shortage of turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
As usual, you slid a little humor into the history/biology lesson to keep those of us with ADD tuned into your teaching. I always wondered how a particular, un-named past president got so orangy, and I always thought it was his bile backing up, but now I know the truth. Thanks.
I have always liked Mr. Eastwood's movies, and like Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer books, you will never learn a thing - but still, great escapes from the reality of global warming and America's fixation on sports. As long as the TV works, who cares about millions dying of starvation and disease - please pass the fried chicken.