Arctic project to produce better poultry yield

Scientists have reported that a species of grouse in the Arctic could help them improve poultry welfare and yields.

A study by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) team has discovered that the Rock Ptarmigan – a relative of grouse found in Svlabard in Norway – has evolved to cope with its extreme environment by moving efficiently at high speeds or when carrying winter weight.

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 – minus 20 degrees and dark all day in the winter and then light for almost 24 hours a day in the summer. Like most wild birds, they put on fat for the winter to insulate them from the cold and also as an emergency energy store. For ptarmigans this fat can be up to 32% of their body weight in the winter.

“We are hoping that the knowledge we gain from our studies will eventually help the poultry meat 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 an additional paper published in PLoS ONE during 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 when food is scarce and hard to find.

Dr Codd added: “You can see why this might be relevant to farmed birds that put on a lot of weight very quickly. 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.”

Professor 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 that tell us about the basic underlying biology of animals that operate in extreme environments are not only fascinating but can also tell us a great deal about how to breed farmed animals that are fit, healthy and productive.”

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