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Why This Chicken is Black From Comb to Feathers to Muscles

The Ayam Cemani is the Goth of the chicken world

Black chicken served with bamboo shoots and caterpillar fungus (Xiaofei Wang/the food passionates/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

It's one of the rarest breeds of chicken in the United States, and also one of the priciest — Greenfire Farms sells a single day-old chick for a whopping $199, and in 2013 aficionados of the unusual chicken could purchase a juvenile pair for $4,999. Why the high price tag? It's all a matter of color: these fowl are black from the inside out.

Kat McGowan reports for Nautilus on the breed, called Ayam Cemani. They have deep bluish-black combs, beaks, cheeks, skin and even a black tongue. The pigmentation continues on to the muscles and internal organs. "It is one Goth chicken," she writes.

A ban on imported live chickens from Indonesia keeps the Ayam Cemani rare in the U.S. But a few other chickens have this black pigmentation in their muscles and organs (a phenomenon called fibromelanosis), including Swedish Bohuslän-Dals svarthöna, Vietnamese Black H’Mong, and the Silkie, originally from China and flaunting feathers so fine they look like silky hair. 

How exactly do those birds get their inky color? McGowan reports on work by Swedish, American and Chinese researchers to figure out why.

The fibromelanosis in all four breeds starts with changes in the developing embryo. Pigment-producing cells called melanocytes normally travel through embryos and end up only in the skin and eyes. But in these all-black birds, a mutation tells melanocytes to move to tissues that will become fibers as the body develops. Dark pigment ends up in the tissue connecting muscles together, as well as the fiber that holds organs together. 

McGowan writes:

This genetic fluke is the result of two sizable chunks of DNA that are duplicated within the chromosome (one of them upside-down). Inside those stretches, Andersson’s group also pinpointed a gene called endothelian-3 (EDN3), known to be involved in the regulation of pigment-producing melanocyte cells. About 10 times as much EDN3 was expressed in the skin of adult black chickens than in other breeds.

The wide geographic spread of these black birds is a testament to exactly how fascinating humans find the result of this mutation. Though they hail from China, Vietnam, Sweden and Indonesia, all the chickens have the same mutation, writes McGowan. But do they all share a love of The Cure?

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