Aldrovandi’s Monstrous Rooster, a 16th Century Dino-Chicken

Chickens are remarkable animals, and I’ve written about them a few times at TetZoo before, albeit always too briefly (see links below). I really need to write about them at length at some point; I actually worked for a few years as a specialist chicken researcher and gathered a lot of interesting information on these birds. Anyway… here, I want to talk about one chicken in particular: a famous individual that has been mentioned several times in the recent literature (e.g., Kaiser 2007). Namely: Aldrovandi’s monstrous rooster.

 Original image of Aldrovandi’s monstrous rooster, from volume 2 of his  Ornithologia . Credit: scan archived by University of Oregon ( original here ).

Original image of Aldrovandi’s monstrous rooster, from volume 2 of his Ornithologia. Credit: scan archived by University of Oregon (original here).

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) was an Italian philosopher, physician and naturalist who’s most frequently mentioned for his three-volume Ornithologia of 1600. Therein, he wrote a lot about chickens, and part of his text covers mutants and monsters, predominantly conjoined chickens and chickens with extra limbs. My Latin is not that hot (err… Caecilius est pater), so it’s fortunate that Fernando Civardi transcribed, and Elio Corti translated, the chicken section of this work such that it’s today available to English readers. The resulting volume, published in 2009, is titled The Chicken of Ulisse Aldrovandi (Corti & Civardi 2009). It’s a great read if you like chickens.

For completeness I should note that Aldrovandi’s chicken text was actually translated beforehand (in 1963) by another worker (L. R. Lind) (Aldrovandi 1963). This version is said to be plagued with translation errors (hey, not my opinion) and hence is not preferred by specialists.

 The cover of Lind’s 1963 translation of Aldrovandi’s chicken text. What’s that thing on the cover? Well… that’s a whole ‘nother story. Credit:  amazon .

The cover of Lind’s 1963 translation of Aldrovandi’s chicken text. What’s that thing on the cover? Well… that’s a whole ‘nother story. Credit: amazon.

To return to the monstrous rooster, the book includes a fine depiction of it as well as a good paragraph of description and interpretation. Aldrovandi himself observed this remarkable bird, alive, in the collection of Francesco Medici – the Grand Duke of Tuscany – and described it as so shocking in appearance that “it struck fear into brave men with its terrifying aspect”. It was blackish overall with white bases to its feathers, and its feathers are said to have looked scale-like. Given that clean-edged, metallic feathers in many gallinaceous birds can look superficially scale-like (one of the best examples being the feathering of male Green peacock Pavo muticus, sometimes called the dragonbird), this is perhaps not as surprising as it might sound.

 There are a great many amazing gallinaceous birds, and here’s one of my favourites: the Green peacock. This is a captive individual at Tierpark Berlin. There’s an entire TetZoo article on this species: see links below. Credit: Markus Bühler, used with permission .

There are a great many amazing gallinaceous birds, and here’s one of my favourites: the Green peacock. This is a captive individual at Tierpark Berlin. There’s an entire TetZoo article on this species: see links below. Credit: Markus Bühler, used with permission .

The monstrous rooster did not possess a conventional fleshy comb and paired wattles but had feathers in their place: a large feathery crest projected from the top of the head and two spines – interpreted by Aldrovandi as feather quills lacking barbs – pointed upwards and outwards from the forehead, “as if they were two horns”. Tufts of long, bristle-like structures emerged from either side of the bill (close to the nostrils) and from the back of the neck as well. The legs were feathered down to the ankles and the feet appear not to have been remarkable. The bird appears to have been tall and large, based on the illustration (though no scale was provided). A colourised interpretation of the animal was produced by Corti & Civardi (2009).

 Cover of Corti & Civardi (2009), showing a colourised version of Aldrovandi’s monstrous rooster. Oh to see such a bird in life. Credit: Corti & Civardi (2009).

Cover of Corti & Civardi (2009), showing a colourised version of Aldrovandi’s monstrous rooster. Oh to see such a bird in life. Credit: Corti & Civardi (2009).

Finally, the most remarkable feature was the tail. It emerged from a whitish, rounded mass of feathers, and was long, slender, fleshy and pale blue. A mass of feathers formed a tuft (Aldrovandi called it a “flock”) at the tip. This tail reminded Aldrovandi of that of “quadrupeds”, predumably meaning lizards or mammals like rats or cats. Here I would remind you that a maniraptoran with a long tail ‘should not’ – so we think based on fossils – have a tail superficially recalling that of a lizard, but instead have a resplendently feathered one. The weirdness here perhaps indicates that the embryological development of this animal’s tail was likely different from that of extinct long-tailed birds and other Mesozoic maniraptorans.

Indeed, this bird sounds so weird overall that I sometimes even wonder whether it really was a domestic chicken, and not a member of some other (presumably now extinct) gallinaceous bird. But I don’t think that this is really up there as a possibility: it really was a member of Gallus gallus.

So… wow. What are we to make of all this?

 Agostino Carracci’s portrait of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), physician, philosopher and naturalist. Credit: image in public domain, from wikipedia ( original here ).

Agostino Carracci’s portrait of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), physician, philosopher and naturalist. Credit: image in public domain, from wikipedia (original here).

For starters, what do we know about Aldrovandi? Well, quite a lot. He was a credible, well trained individual who had studied law, philosophy, mathematics and logic at university; he published on insects and other invertebrates and was even credited by Linnaeus as the ‘father of natural history’. He also wrote extensively about anomalous cases in zoology and medicine and collected enough of them that they were (posthumously) published in the 1640 volume Historiae Serpentum et Draconum and the 1642 Monstrorum Historia. His serpents and dragons book also includes a brief discussion of the monstrous rooster, but doesn’t add information relative to that included in his Ornithologia.

 Damn, chickens are awesome. These birds belonged to a group living semi-wild on Madeira. Credit: Darren Naish.

Damn, chickens are awesome. These birds belonged to a group living semi-wild on Madeira. Credit: Darren Naish.

What we can glean from Aldrovandi’s writings is that he lived within the ethnographic landscape of Renaissance Italy, by which I mean that he seemingly believed in things (like human-like monsters and mythical beasts of far-off lands) that we today know not to exist. But his writings on direct, specific cases show that he was not credulous or prone to endorsing half-truths. He was critical of stories about basilisks, for example (thought at the time to result from the production or brooding of eggs by roosters)*. Furthermore, his illustrations of known animals are often highly accurate, as you can see from the examples shared here. Indeed, his writings on other anomalous specimens – like the ‘Homuncio’ (a short-statured Indian man whose body was draped with massive fleshy growths) – have been interpreted as biologically accurate (Ruggieri & Polizzi 2003).

* For those curious, I’m not exploring the basilisk angle here; I have to avoid it for now. Constraints of time.

 Aldrovandi was a skilled and accurate artist, and his illustrations of known species - familiar and foreign - are usually highly accurate, as is demonstrated by these chickens. His chicken text also includes several illustrations of curassows, and they’re all essentially accurate. Credit: Corti & Civardi (2009).

Aldrovandi was a skilled and accurate artist, and his illustrations of known species - familiar and foreign - are usually highly accurate, as is demonstrated by these chickens. His chicken text also includes several illustrations of curassows, and they’re all essentially accurate. Credit: Corti & Civardi (2009).

The major caveat here is that Aldrovandi’s text and illustration of the monstrous rooster were (so far as we can tell) produced some considerable time after his observation of the bird, in which case all sorts of discrepancies might have crept in. The possibility that it had been modified or fitted with an artificial tail is not out of the question, but can’t be tested and is just an idea I need to mention in passing. We do know of other cases whereby animals have been made to look remarkable to impress or dupe observers, after all.

But, all in all, I’m inclined to think that the case was genuine, and that a long-tailed mutant rooster really was observed at some point in the 1500s by an erudite young man.

 If a ‘dino-chicken’ ever does come to pass, it should be awesome and beautiful — like a real chicken. Err, in which case I don’t think anyone will look at it and think of a connection with the Mesozoic maniraptorans it’s meant to evoke. Whatever. Credit: Rebecca Groom.

If a ‘dino-chicken’ ever does come to pass, it should be awesome and beautiful — like a real chicken. Err, in which case I don’t think anyone will look at it and think of a connection with the Mesozoic maniraptorans it’s meant to evoke. Whatever. Credit: Rebecca Groom.

I will leave you with one final thought. Jack Horner’s ‘dino-chicken’ project seeks to create a mutant fowl with a long, bony tail and other ‘ancestral’ features, all brought into existence via genetic and embryological modification. And research underpinning such efforts has already been published (Rashid et al. 2018). Was Aldrovandi’s rooster a demonstration that some of these developmental changes can occur without modern, deliberate modification? In other words, could it have been a real, ‘natural’ dino-chicken; one that existed four-hundred years before our time? If only the body, or skeleton, of this amazing bird had been preserved.

For other TetZoo articles linked to things mentioned here, see… (note: TetZoo ver 2 articles - the ScienceBlogs ones - are now appearing without their images, yay!)…

Refs - -

Aldrovandi, U. 1963. Aldrovandi on Chickens. Translated by L. R. Lind. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

Corti, E. & Civardi, F. 2009. The Chicken of Ulisse Aldrovandi. www.summagallicana.it

Kaiser, G. 2007. The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution. University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Rashid, D. J., Surya, K., Chiappe, L. M., Carroll, N., Garrett, K. L., Varghese, B., Bailleul, A., O’Connor, J., Chapman, S. C. & Horner, J. R. 2018. Avian tail ontogeny, pygostyle formation, and interpretation of juvenile Mesozoic specimens. Scientific Reports 8: 9014.

Ruggieri, M. & Polizzi, A. 2003. From Aldrovandi’s “Homuncio” (1592) to Buffon’s girl (1749) and the “Wart Man” of Tilesius (1793): antique illustrations of mosaicism in neurofibromatosis? Journal of Medical Genetics 40, 227-232.

Avocets in Flight and Phylogeny

Avocets are a small group of long-legged, long-billed wading birds, all four species of which are boldly patterned in black and white. The American avocet Recurvirostra americana and Red-necked avocet R. novaehollandiae also have a reddish or brown head and neck. All avocets are included in the single genus Recurvirostra. Avocets are present on all continents except Antarctica, are absent from cold northern parts of Eurasia and North America, and are associated with habitats ranging from estuaries, lagoons, sewage ponds and salt-pans to ponds and rivers.

 Pied avocets (and Black-tailed godwits) in flight. Image: Bernie Dempsey.

Pied avocets (and Black-tailed godwits) in flight. Image: Bernie Dempsey.

I don’t think I’ve ever written about avocets before. The article here came about because I received permission to use the photos you see here from my long-standing friend Bernie Dempsey. Avocets mostly nest in colonies, though solitary nesting is practised as well; they also tend to be gregarious outside the breeding season. The photos here show large numbers of Pied avocet R. avosetta taking flight at Brownsea, southern England, due to the presence of a hunting peregrine. Black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa (and a single gull) are visible in flight as well. Having mentioned breeding, avocets are famous for performing elaborate social breeding ceremonies where groups form circles, raise and lower their bills in ritualised fashion, and often engage in fights and scuffles.

 Another shot of the same group of Pied avocets (and Black-tailed godwits) in flight. Image: Bernie Dempsey.

Another shot of the same group of Pied avocets (and Black-tailed godwits) in flight. Image: Bernie Dempsey.

The fine, upcurved avocet bill is used in ‘skimming’ or ‘scything’ across the surface of water. The birds do this while wading, typically in water only as deep as their ankles. Small food items (mostly molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic insects) are retained on internal lamellae, and the large, fleshy tongue is (presumably) used to remove said items once enough have been collected. The bill is apparently more strongly curved in females than in males: another example of bill dimorphism of the sort I’ve written about before (see this ver 2 article) and perhaps present as a consequence of resource partitioning. As always with animals, avocets are not limited to this form of foraging alone, however: they will also swim and up-end to reach food from a submerged muddy substrate and will also grab insects from terrestrial plants.

 A Pied avocet, photographed at Minsmere, UK. Note the highly reduced hallux. Image: Tim Felce, CC BY-SA 2.0 ( original here ).

A Pied avocet, photographed at Minsmere, UK. Note the highly reduced hallux. Image: Tim Felce, CC BY-SA 2.0 (original here).

Avocets might best be regarded as weird plovers. Avocets are closely related to a similar group of long-legged waders: the stilts Cladorhynchus and Himantopus. Stilts are very avocet-like but differ in having a straight bill. Anyone familiar with bird taxonomy will know that bird groups that look as different from one another as avocets and stilts do normally get given their own ‘families’, but the tradition here is that both are combined within Recurvirostridae, avocets being Recurvirostrinae and stilts being Himantopodinae. However, not only does a ‘subfamily-level’ classification seem somewhat pointless given that we’re only talking about three genera, it is by no means clear that stilts are monophyletic, since some studies find Cladorhynchus (the banded stilt) to be outside a Himantopus + Recurvirostra clade (Christidis & Schodde 1992, Dove 2000).

Having mentioned Cladorhynchus within the context of phylogeny, I have to note that this bird was used by Olson & Feduccia (1980) to support their idea that flamingos “evolved directly from the Recurvirostridae”. This view (which was never that popular among palaeornithologists anyway) now has to be considered compellingly falsified. I might write about this whole story some other time.

 A selection of birds included within the charadriiform group Charadrii, chosen to represent most (though not all) main lineages. This is a montage produced for   in-prep textbook  The Vertebrate Fossil Record   . Image: Darren Naish.

A selection of birds included within the charadriiform group Charadrii, chosen to represent most (though not all) main lineages. This is a montage produced for in-prep textbook The Vertebrate Fossil Record. Image: Darren Naish.

As goes the larger view, recurvirostrids are charadriiforms (that is, part of the same group as plovers, gulls and auks), and specifically part of Charadrii, the charadriiform group that contains sheathbills, stone-curlews or thick-knees, ibisbills, oystercatchers and plovers. While conventionally considered a distinct ‘family’, note that Recurvirostridae is one of several long-billed groups within Charadrii that’s surrounded in phylogenies by taxa traditionally grouped together within the plover family Charadriidae (Chu 1995, Ericson et al. 2003, Baker et al. 2007, Mayr 2011). No one has acted on this yet, even though the most ‘sensible’ solution is to sink Recurvirostridae and the other affected groups (Ibidorhynchidae and Haematopodidae) into Charadriidae. The alternative solution is to raise several lineages to ‘family' level’ such that oystercatchers, recurvirostrids and so on get to retain ‘family status’. Whatever, the interesting thing here are goes charadriiform evolution is that the very long-billed recurvirostrids, oystercatchers and ibisbills all evolved from short-billed ancestors (or a single ancestor?) that would have been similar to plovers, stone-curlews or sheathbills. Maybe we’d guess this already, but it receives firm support from the topology of cladograms. I’ve written a fair bit about this issue (about the topology and taxonomy of these groups) in my in-prep textbook, and the cladogram you see here is from that work (you can see more from the book and my other projects here at patreon).

 There are several competing cladograms for Charadrii: this one is a simplified version of the topology recovered by Mayr (2011). Like all of these sorts of cladograms, this one was produced for my in-prep textbook…   on which go here  .  Pluvianus  is missing simply because I haven’t drawn it yet. Image: Darren Naish.

There are several competing cladograms for Charadrii: this one is a simplified version of the topology recovered by Mayr (2011). Like all of these sorts of cladograms, this one was produced for my in-prep textbook… on which go here. Pluvianus is missing simply because I haven’t drawn it yet. Image: Darren Naish.

The restoration of Pied avocets in Britain. Here in the UK, Pied avocets (which we typically term just ‘avocets’) are famous for virtually disappearing from the country due to wetland reclamation followed by egg collecting and shooting. They were gone as a breeding species for about 100 years. During the 1940s, the birds began breeding again due to the modification of Minsmere in Suffolk to its original flooded condition (this flooding being a WWII defensive measure). Competition and predation from gulls initially kept breeding success low but removal of gull nests and eggs eventually allowed avocet breeding success to increase; another drop during the 1970s – this time caused by a decline in invertebrate prey – was countered by waterway management (Thomas 1985).

 The modern RSPB logo. Image: fair use.

The modern RSPB logo. Image: fair use.

This determined conservation effort was a great success and a good example of how systems (which were already heavily modified by human action) have to be managed and manipulated extensively for an endangered species to be bought back from the brink. It explains why the Pied avocet was adopted in 1955 as the symbol for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). This is apparently the first use of a bird image as a symbol for conservation.

 Pied avocets and Black-tailed godwits (and a gull), alarmed by a nearby peregrine. Image: Bernie Dempsey.

Pied avocets and Black-tailed godwits (and a gull), alarmed by a nearby peregrine. Image: Bernie Dempsey.

Charadriiform birds have been covered a few times at TetZoo before (wow… I really thought I’d written about waders - that is, scolopacids - a great deal more than this). My issue with providing lists of links like this is that many of these articles are now paywalled. Support me at patreon and assist my efforts in getting them transferred to ver 4 (where paywalling will never occur)…

Refs - -

Baker, A. J., Pereira, S. L. & Paton, T. A. 2007. Phylogenetic relationships and divergence times of Charadriiformes genera: multigene evidence for the Cretaceous origin of at least 14 clades of shorebirds. Biology Letters 3, 205-209.

Christia, P. D., Christidis, L. & Schodde, R. 1992. Biochemical systematics of the Charadriiformes (shorebirds): relationships between the Charadrii, Scolopaci and Lari. Australian Journal of Zoology 40, 291-302.

Chu, P. C. 1995. Phylogenetic reanalysis of Strauch’s osteological data set for the Charadriiformes. The Condor 97, 174-196.

Dove, C. J. 2000. A descriptive and phylogenetic analysis of plumalaceous feather characters in Charadriiformes. Ornithological Monographs 51, 1-163.

Ericson, P. G. P., Envall, I., Irestadt, M. & Norman, J. A. 2003. Inter-familial relationships of the shorebirds (Aves: Charadriiformes) based on nuclear DNA sequence data. BMC Evolutionary Biology 3: 16.

Mayr, G. 2011. The phylogeny of charadriiform birds (shorebirds and allies) – reassessing the conflict between morphology and molecules. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 161, 916-934.

Olson, S. L. & Feduccia, A. 1980. Relationships and evolution of flamingos (Aves: Phoenicopteridae). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 316, 1-73.

Thomas, G. 1985. Plovers and sandpipers. In Perrins, C. M. & Middleton, A. L. A. (eds) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Equinox, Oxford, pp. 162-175.