Page 1: The Hühnermensch
Caution: Some readers may find this page disturbing.
Note: Although the report quoted on this page states that a woman gave birth to the specimen in question, all other allegations of human-chicken hybrids seem to refer to offspring hatched by chickens.
Note: In listing reports of hybrids, it has been my policy to include all serious allegations, especially those of scholars, whether or not the hybrid alleged seems possible or likely to me. This policy, I think, helps to eliminate subjective judgment on my part, and therefore should remove at least one source of systematic bias from my work. It also helps to fulfill the ethical obligation of telling not just the truth, but the whole truth.
Although some people may take lurid interest in gazing at pictures of deformed infants such as those shown on this page, this article was written for a different reason, that being to record information that will assist scientists in answering a single question: How different can two animals be if they are to produce a hybrid together? Of course, this question cannot be answered by simply reading this page. After all, the creature discussed here may not even be a hybrid (though genetic tests of the specimen would probably be able to resolve that issue). But the information documented here will help anyone who wishes to investigate the matter further.
In 1735, the German physician Gottlieb Friderici (1693-1742) attended the delivery of an infant in the small town of Taucha, a few kilometers northeast of Leipzig. His patient, 28-year-old Johanna Sophia Schmied, had previously given birth to three normal boys, and Friderici anticipated nothing unusual.
“But then,” he writes,
from this fourth pregnancy she brought forth this dreadful monster, which I propose to describe. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin: “Tandem quarta vice gravida, horrendum hoc, quod describendum iam mihi proposui, in lucem edidit monstrum.”]
Friderici’s “dreadful monster,” stillborn that day after an eight-month gestation, was indeed peculiar, so peculiar that he took the trouble to write up a detailed anatomical account, entitled Monstrum humanum rarissimum (i.e., An Exceedingly Rare Human Monster), which he published two years later (Friderici 1737). He also immediately hired an artist to prepare engravings of this strange birth, now known as the Hühnermensch (“chicken-human”). The resulting illustrations, reproduced here, accompanied Friderici’s account.
This remarkable specimen has been preserved in the collection of the Heimatmuseum und Naturalienkabinett Waldenburg, a museum in Saxony, and is therefore available for genetic testing. Either by coincidence or by heredity, it does seem to have enough characteristics in common with chickens to earn its name. Friderici repeatedly commented on the ostensible connection this babe makes between Class Mammalia and Class Aves. For example, during the course of his anatomical description, he says,
The upper extremities are not unlike those of a plucked chicken
and the digits, while normal in order and number, have claws exactly like those of a chicken. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin: “Extremitates superiores significat, brachia scilicet alis gallinarum, plumis privatarum, non absimilia. Cubito annexae manus oculis se exponunt, digitis quidem, si rationem numeri et ordinis habeas, legitimis, unguibus autem pullorum ungulis plane similibus.”]
“The deformed feet,” he says,
which are in an abnormal position and attached to chicken-like shanks, are, with the exception of their soles, of a wholly unwonted form, with the toes marvelously distorted and tipped with claws that are likewise exactly those of a domestic chicken. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin: “adjectos trunco pedes monstrat, utpote qui, inusitatum plane situm obtinentes, cum gallinarum cruribus aliqua ex parte convenire videntur, si a plantis pedum discesseris, quae ab humanis quidem non diversae sunt, at digiti tamen mire distorti apparent, ac ungues itidem pullorum gallinaceorum unguas referunt.”]
As do chickens, this literal Wunderkind has eye rings (periophthalmic rings) and a comb-like structure atop its head, both composed of red tissue, as in chickens. In addition, as in all birds, the ears are represented by only a small opening with no raised, external ears (pinnae), which are present in all mammals other than monotremes. Also as in birds, external genitalia are absent and the testes are internal.
It can also be seen in the illustrations that the skin is loosely attached to the underlying tissues, so loosely that it forms webbing at various regions of flexure (neck, elbow, knee, crotch). The skin of a bird, too, is more elastic and more loosely attached to the body than is that of the typical mammal, which is generally interpreted as giving birds the freedom of movement needed for flight (Stettenheim 2000).
Gottlieb Friderici was born in 1693 in the village of Taucha in Saxony (the same community where he later delivered the Hühnermensch). He completed his dissertation at the University of Leipzig around 1713 and became a doctor of philosophy and medicine. He was thereafter a general practitioner in Leipzig up to the time of his death in 1742. (Biographical details from Huppmann 2006.)
The heart, too, was larger than that of an ordinary human infant. And, according to a Kentucky University webpage on the avian circulatory system,
Birds tend to have larger hearts than mammals (relative to body size and mass). The relatively large hearts of birds may be necessary to meet the high metabolic demands of flight. Among birds, smaller birds have relatively larger hearts (again relative to body mass) than larger birds. Hummingbirds have the largest hearts (relative to body mass) of all birds, probably because hovering takes so much energy.
During the necropsy, Friderici found that the comb-like structure atop the head actually contained brain tissue, a situation reminiscent of that described by Purohit et al. (1977), who note that many hybrids produced by crossing pheasants with chickens are exencephalic (i.e., the brain is located outside the skull).
Among the anomalies exhibited by the Hühnermensch is a syndrome known as kleeblattschädel, a congenital anomaly in which there is intrauterine synostosis of multiple or all cranial sutures. This is another avian characteristic of the specimen, because in birds the cranial sutures also fuse at a very early stage of development (Brown 1915, p. 72).
If the Hühnermensch actually is a bird-mammal hybrid, then at this distance in time, one can only speculate about what might have happened back in Taucha all those many years ago. Did a rooster wander into a rustic bedroom and sit for a time on the lap of his naked mistress? Perhaps Johanna Sophia Schmied was a member of a coven that engaged in dark orgiastic rites that resulted in a weird creature seeing the light of day? Or possibly one day while gathering eggs she had her hands full and placed some rooster-semen-coated eggs in her underpants to carry them back to the house? Whatever happened, it seems the Hühnermensch took flight from there.
Why would such hybrids occasionally occur? In certain distant crosses only a small percentage of inseminations result in a viable hybrid. This fact has been experimentally verified in crosses of commercial interest, such as chicken × turkey, a cross in which about 1000 inseminations are required to produce a single adult hybrid. The vast majority of hybrids from such crosses die at various stages of development before reaching maturity. Among mammals, such distant hybrids often abort or are stillborn. Among birds, they usually die in the egg. But some, very few, survive. Even from the present, extremely distant cross (human × chicken), viable mature hybrids have been reported (however dubiously). So it seems that it is not that distant hybrids are entirely impossible, but rather that they do occur, but with hybrids that reach advanced stages of development being produced at only at very low frequencies. One can speculate that this experimental observation may reflect the existence of an unrecognized underlying rescue mechanism that activates/deactivates portions of the hybrid genome at random, so that different individuals have different developmental programs, a mechanism actuated, perhaps, via random heterochromatization of various portions of the composite genome.
Some very strange pairings can result from imprinting. When a newborn mammal or bird is exposed to some animal not of its own kind it may “imprint” on that animal, that is, later in life it may seek mates of that kind rather than its own, as a sexual partners. In connection with the present case, Hess (1959) reports that he imprinted a rooster on human beings by exposing him only to humans during the first month of life and keeping him strictly away from other chickens. As an adult, the rooster sought only human mates even when allowed access to hens. So one can think of various scenarios based on this knowledge: an accidentally imprinted rooster, an intoxicated or unconscious woman, and a very unusual mating.
At any rate, this specimen is a very interesting one and, given that it would no doubt be an F1 hybrid (if it is a hybrid at all), it would be very easy to detect its origins with genetic testing. One quick and easy method would be PCR amplification using human and chicken primers. As Cicero once said (De Officiis, I, 6),
We must not treat the unknown as known and too readily accept it. And he who wishes to avoid this error (as all should do) will devote both time and attention to the weighing of evidence.