Imagine a 36-foot-long duck billed dinosaur with a bright comb on its head strutting around the yard. Those enormous beasts roamed North America between 65 and 75 million years ago and shared a feature with modern chickens. Both sported fleshy combs!
“No one ever suspected dinosaurs may have combs like roosters because the evidence of soft tissue usually decays before fossilization,” said Dr. Phil Bell of Australia’s University of New England. Fortunately, skin impressions found on a dinosaur skull in Alberta, Canada, revealed that this huge animal did have a fleshy comb somewhat like a chickens. Other dinosaur species may also have sported combs.
Maybe that’s not surprising since birds are dinosaurs, yet few modern birds have combs or wattles on their heads. Some woodpeckers, cardinals, and blue jays have crests sticking up on their heads. But these are feather tufts, not combs.
Fleshy wattles, combs, or both are found on gallinaceous birds, like turkeys, but among all birds chickens are comb champions. Combs are blood-rich tissues that come in diverse shapes and sizes and can be used to help identify a breed and reveal a bird’s health and laying ability.
Experts aren’t consistent in exactly how many types of chicken combs exist but most recognize these: V, Pea, Single, Strawberry, Cushion, Buttercup, Walnut, and Rose. Most common is the single comb that rises prominently from the top of a chicken’s head. The single comb of a Leghorn rooster can be impressive and immense. New Hampshire and Rhode Island Reds and many other common breeds sport single combs. Wyandottes have rose combs while Brahmas have pea combs. Other comb types are found on less common breeds.
Combs are a chicken’s main ornament. A massive, deep red comb, for example, might make a rooster more attractive to hens. They are also radiators. During scorching summer weather, a big comb helps a bird shed body heat. That’s a disadvantage during January’s chill when the comb can get frostbitten. Breeds with small pea and rose combs are more likely to be toasty warm during a January blizzard than their single combed coop mates.
Whether a chicken has a large single or a tiny pea comb its color and appearance can give a clue to the bird’s health and laying ability. A pale comb may indicate illness, worm or lice infestation or, perhaps, even frostbite. Whatever the cause, a shrunken, pale cone likely indicates the hen isn’t laying often. In contrast a bright red comb is a beacon of health.
Americans would be astonished, perhaps shocked, to learn that combs are sometimes eaten…..by people. Called cockscombs, they are considered a delicacy in Europe and are sometimes served in expensive French restaurants.
No one knows if the combs on monstrous dinosaurs gave an indication of their health. People weren’t around to see them. Fortunately, we can scan chicken combs to help identify their breed and physical condition.