2010, April 22: Gianni's New Life

On April 22, 2010, the British website Daily Mail reported a very strange occurrence that seems simple enough, but could indicate a whole new branch of scientific inquiry.

GianniGianni, the Chicken [Larger version here]

        According to the website, a rooster named Gianni that lived on a farm in Tuscany, Italy, underwent a strange transformation after a fox raided the enclosure Gianni and his hens occupied, killing all of the hens. Within days of this disaster, Gianni went from waking his owners with a cock-crow each dawn to laying eggs and trying to hatch them. Gianni the rooster had changed from a male to a female!

        Perhaps needless to say, Gianni's transformation baffled scientists at the UN's Farm and Agriculture Organization. It was postulated that perhaps this was evidence of an ancient survival gene, geared to kick in only when the population was lacking viable females to continue the species. A Prof. Donato Matassino was quoted as saying: "This rooster-hen will be taken to the laboratories of Consdabi (Consortium for the experimentation and application of innovative biotechniques) for a series of behavioral and genetic tests. This will allow us to decipher this bizarre DNA mix up that appears to have literally given what looks like two chickens in one." For these reasons, Gianni was transported to Naples, Italy, where the laboratories of the Consdabi are located, for study.

        While it is known that hens can change under specific circumstances to become "roosters" in behavior and appearance, such animals do not develop an actual change in sexual organs... they are just female chickens acting like males. To have a change in the reverse direction -- from rooster to hen -- is unheard of, and to have a viable breeding rooster become a viable breeding hen is astounding. If the change is what it is said to be, and a genetic mechanism can be found behind it, the discovery will be a major breakthrough in science!

Oh, except for...

        Remember how I said the source of this story was the Daily Mail website? Yeah... that's the problem.

        The Daily Mail is a British news service that has a reputation for both spicing up stories and just plain inventing them. They've gotten so notorious for it, as a matter of fact, that as of February 2017 the web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia has stated it will no longer accept the use of the Daily Mail and related sites/publications as information sources for their online articles!

        So I dug a bit further on this simple story, and found it fell into the first category of cheat, "spicing it up." What is likely the original report concerning Gianni the gender-bending chicken comes from an Italian news source, Il Messaggero [The Messenger], dated April 17, 2010. As it turns out, Gianni really did undergo a transformation after all other chickens in the pen were killed, and actually was sent to the Consdabi in Naples for study from his home farm in Lido di Camaiore in Tuscany. The unusual chicken was to be studied physically and behaviorally by Prof. Donato Matassino, president of the Consdabi. So a substantial part of the story as reported by the Daily Mail is correct... except for one major difference.

        Gianni the chicken, you see, started out as female and started to act like a male, while still laying eggs; which is to say, Gianni's behavior and appearance changed, but not the animal's physical gender. Much to the surprise of the hen's owners, Gianni started to crow at dawn, while still laying eggs and sitting on them, as the chicken developed male plummage, comb, and wattle.

        As I've already mentioned, it's a known fact that hens will under certain circumstances start to act and look like roosters, while still being female: so Gianni's transformation does not represent a new breakthrough in science, because it's a known occurrence that the Daily Mail chose to reverse in their reporting! Though the odd change of a hen to a pretend "rooster" is a known phenomena, it's still little understood... and that's the real reason Gianni was taken to the Consdabi for study, to examine a living example of a little known occurrence. The quote given above by the Daily Mail and attributed to Prof. Matassino is almost certainly an invention of the Daily Mail staff, as it mainly reflects actual phrases from the earlier Italian report, just placed into the Professor's mouth.

        I'm marking this account as "Factually Challenged"... based on a true story, but with obviously altered details. So chalk up one more tall-tale to the hard-working staff of the Daily Mail!