• Weird Nature

What Animals Looked Like Before Humans Started Breeding Them For Food

Around 11,000 years ago when humans first began trading nomadic lifestyles for permanent communities, they also began to domesticate animals. Species like sheep, cattle, and goats were among the first to be tamed based on their usefulness to human survival. This was only the beginning of the millennia of selective breeding, changing what were once wild animals into the domestic creatures commonly recognized today.

What animals looked like before humans bred them for food is shockingly different to how many species look today. From cattle that look like they're on steroids to turkeys that have doubled in weight, many of them have received a size upgrade to feed humans more efficiently. For better or worse, cross-breeding has become driven primarily by trends in human diets, multimillion-dollar corporate takeover of farming, and a growing global population.

Of course, sometimes genetic mutations in cross-breeding animals not only led to useful scientific discovery but also produced some weird, cross-bred animals. Photography in particular illuminates how selective breeding in the farming industry (and even of some animals we no longer breed for meat) has forever changed both the way humans eat and how domestic animals look.

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  • Chickens bred for meat are known as broilers, and they generally have white feathers over their large, meaty bodies. The US Food and Drug Administration prohibits the use of added hormones in both pork and poultry, so those industries do not use artificial or added hormones in the production process.

    However, some birds have become so heavily modified they have trouble walking around with all their extra body weight. They've become genetically selected to grow bigger, particularly with bigger breasts, as these are the most versatile and marketable parts of the chicken for food. As such, they're 80 percent larger than they were in the mid-20th century.

    Today, they look almost nothing like their Asian ancestor, the Red Junglefowl - even though they're technically the same species.

  • Modern-day domestic pigs are almost unrecognizable from their ancestors, which had wiry coats; were dark brown, gray, and black in color; and had long tusks. They were most likely domesticated 9,000 years ago in Asia. Today's farm-raised pigs are a non-threatening shade of pink (though some heritage breeds sport other colors), lack tusks, and are considerably larger. Pigs of all breeds have been bred for mass food production, yielding tender and fatty meat.

    Though the FDA prohibits growth hormones in the development of pork, the Austin Chronicle reported that as the popularity of raising pigs for pork skyrocketed from Christopher Columbus's time onward in North America: 

    The trend was for developing herds that produced higher numbers of offspring and pigs that were leaner (resulting in better feed efficiency). Husbandry methods emphasized control of diseases caused by huge factory pig-raising techniques, introducing the use of prophylactic antibiotics. Pork had become "the Other White Meat."

  • Laying Chickens

    Chickens were domesticated since 2,000 BCE. All the varieties descended from just four species found in the jungles of Asia, but today's chickens are bred to suit the needs of mass production. Though their meat-producing cousins are the ones who have been bred to have larger bodies, egg-laying hens have also ended up with much larger bodies - and much larger eggs - than their predecessors.

    Though at first they reportedly selected hens for breeding based on weaning out disease, farmers soon realized they could maximize output of hens. The goal then became to develop super-chickens that rarely take breaks from egg-laying routines.

    As a result, each modern hen lays around 200 eggs per year, whereas wild or roaming chickens lay only a handful once a year.

  • Salmon

    Photo: J LEVIN W / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Salmon has remained a popular food source, but in recent years, it's seen some significant changes in its qualities, including taste and aesthetic. Overfishing led to excessive farming of the fish, which then led to genetic modifications that could develop much larger animals than wild-growing species.

    However, this quickly spiraled out of control in negative ways. John Vidal, a journalist for The Guardian, reported on a lecture by Don Staniford to the National Geographic Society about the problems with salmon farms in America:

    Not only were fish farms getting bigger... they were also becoming reservoirs for infectious diseases and parasites. It was a shocking, revealing talk. I did not know that farmed salmon were fed partly on fishmeal and fish oil, often derived from ocean fish such as anchovies, herring, and sardines. Despite industry claims that industrial aquaculture feeds the world’s poor, it seemed that the big farms were adding to the pressure on the depletion of the oceans.

    The FDA is now taking further measures to test and approve safer salmon-growing measures for consumption, so that the size of salmon does not come at a cost of fish or human health.