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Bird news

by Melissa Gilden
November 9, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 44


A poultrifying fall look

A photo of black Ayam Cemani chickens.
Credit: Shutterstock
Black celebration: A complex mutation makes the Ayam Cemani the chicken of your goth nightmares.

An all-black outfit is always slimming and in fashion. Meet the chic Ayam Cemani chicken: black is the color of not only its feathers but also its tongue, organs, and bones. Spooky.

The pitch-black poultry, which hails from Java, Indonesia, has an inky color inside and out because of a condition called fibromelanosis, or dermal hyperpigmentation. The excessive pigment is a result of a complex mutation involving the EDN3 gene, which codes for endothelin-3, a peptide that controls the rapid reproduction of melanoblasts (PLOS One 2017, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173147).

Melanoblasts are embryological cells that develop into melanocytes—the cells responsible for producing melanin, a dark pigment that colors skin, eyes, and even feathers. In the Ayam Cemani embryo, the EDN3 gene is duplicated, leading to an upregulation of endothelin-3, Leif Andersson, a professor of functional genomics at Uppsala University, tells Newscripts. That upregulation leads to a massive expansion of pigment cells, resulting in the chicken’s goth phenotype.

The Ayam Cemani is not alone: there are three other breeds of chickens that, on the inside, look like they could be cousins. The Silkie breed from China, black H’Mong from Vietnam, and svarthöna from Sweden all exhibit the dark marks of fibromelanosis.

While you wouldn’t be able to find Ayam Cemani breasts or thighs at your local grocery store, the fine-feathered chickens and their meat are, surprisingly, available online. Greenfire Farms in Havana, Florida, will sell you a day-old chick for a cool $199. And a website, delightfully named Exotic Meat Market, advertises a dressed bird for the completely worth-it price of $99.99. Chicken soup for the extremely dark soul, anyone?


A beakon of data

A photo of steppe eagles with their tracking devices, programmed to send SMS messages with their location.
Credit: Elena Shnayder/Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network
Soaring charges: Russian conservation scientists who use SMS trackers to observe the migration patterns of steppe eagles were hit with quite the data bill when a rogue eagle flew off course.

Blowing through your monthly cellular data allowance can be annoying. This Newscriptster would know: she’s paid a major telecommunications company an extra $15 in overage fees several times.

But ornithologists at the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network were surprised to find their data-roaming charges in the hundreds of dollars, thanks to Min—one of the 13 migrating steppe eagles they were tracking—going off course.

According to the New York Times, the eagles were migrating south from Russia and Kazakhstan when Min’s tracking device, designed to send four SMS messages with his GPS location per day, went dark. Months later, the scientists received hundreds of text messages from him at once. From Iran—where the price per text is over five times what it is in Kazakhstan.

It turns out that Min had been taking quite the spin around remote areas of Kazakhstan, where cell towers are nowhere to be found. The flood of texts blew through the scientists’ research budget, and they had to resort to crowdfunding to cover the costs.

This story does have a happy ending, however. That crowdfunding campaign has raised enough money to continue tracking the birds. And thanks to phone companies reaching out with offers, the eagles will be equipped with free SIM cards for 2020. And MegaFon, the Russian mobile phone operator and the conservationists’ service provider, offered to cancel much of the scientists’ debt. If only MegaFon was in charge of your student loans.

Melissa Gilden wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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