How To Make A Chicken Walk Like A Dinosaur: Strap A Tail To Its Butt

By Ben Wolford on February 7, 2014 4:31 PM EST

Chicken With Tail
Scientists affixed prosthetic tails to chickens to recreate the locomotion of T-Rex. (Photo: Screenshot/Bruno Grossi)

This is the story of four chickens raised with prosthetic dinosaur tails in the name of science. Let me explain.

First, understand that a chicken actually isn't so different from a Tyrannosaurus rex anyway. Like their dinosaur ancestors, they walk on two feet and stand fully erect. For these and other similarities, scientists have often studied chickens and other birds for clues about the way gigantic ancient lizards might have conducted themselves.

Just one problem, though. Over millions of years — in addition to beaks, feathers, and wings — chickens have undergone a frontward shift in their center of mass. In other words, they've gotten front heavy because of their meaty breasts. It made studying the delicate nuances of T-rex locomotion that much more difficult. So scientists in Chile and Chicago attempted to recreate the dinosaur center of mass by basically Velcro strapping a plunger to the butts of four unsuspecting chickens.

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"We attached more realistic artificial tail to chickens shortly after hatching, and allowed proper exercise," the authors wrote in their study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. "We expected adult chickens with added tails to show a more vertical femur in standing position and increased femoral excursion during locomotion." Twelve chickens hatched, and they were divvied into three groups. The third group was the experimental group, which meant that two days after they hatched, they were affixed with Velcro straps that fastened a prosthetic tail of clay-and-wood. It looks just like a tiny plunger and accounted for 15 percent of their mass. They wore these for 12 weeks.

Then the scientist filmed them walking. You can see the video here on the study's page. Basically, it worked. It wasn't perfect, but it worked. "We have shown that the addition of an artificial tail during ontogeny can produce postural and locomotory changes in chickens, consistent with the posture and kinematics inferred for non-avian dinosaurs," they wrote. They encouraged further research by paleontologists using plunger tails on chickens. They say it wasn't perfect because the weight distribution wasn't primarily caused by loss of tail so much as chicken breast size gains. Ideally, they said, they would've cut off some of the front of the chicken, but that wasn't experimentally feasible.

Which brings up another question: Is this experiment even ethical? Apparently there's been no word from PETA, and the researchers disclosed that they checked their research method with animal ethicists at the Bioethics and Animal Use Committee at the University of Chile. The team says they followed strict standards, and "no ill effects or distress were observed." But, boy, if those chickens could talk. How embarrassing.

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