Quite a lot of people are discussing this study from Japan examining the effect of light on the crowing behavior of roosters. The authors observed several birds in experimental conditions where light intensity and duration were controlled, taking observations with audio recorders and cameras. The scenarios presented were a daylight cycle of 12 hours of light and dim light respectively, and constant dim light. Observations were recorded for a period of 14 days, producing this graph.
So many reporters on the study have run with this, making declarations about what great timekeepers roosters are, and how cool it is that they don’t need the sun to know when dawn is.
Well, approximately when dawn is.
“Under dimLL conditions, a free-running rhythm of crowing was observed with a period of 23.7 ± 0.1 h (n = 4), but this free-running rhythmicity gradually damped out”
Interesting, so the sun is unnecessary until it’s been gone for a while, then we start to get some variation. This dampening effect is even more obvious when you place testosterone implants in the roosters.
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Roosters have this accurate of a circadian clock is impressive! It’s very interesting biologically, but it’s not some infallible atomic clock. While many news sites are toting that Roosters are independent of the sun, the opposite is true. Circadian rhythms are directly calibrated primarily by light cycling, with temperature being another important environmental cue. To confirm the roosters knew what time it was, the authors examined the effect of light or recorded crowing sounds at different times of day. They found that there were fewer crowing behaviors at random dawn times than at the “correct time” of day.
This doesn’t mean the roosters know it’s 5pm, but their circadian rhythm is telling them that it isn’t dawn. However, the sun still “came up” so we witness some halfhearted crowing. Anyone who has ever traveled out of their timezone knows exactly how this feels: these roosters have jet lag. While the sun may be coming up, their circadian clocks are telling them that it feels like a different time of day, so they crow in response to the light, but with reluctance and confusion, much in the same way you sleepily get up on vacation when the Louvre opens, even though it feels like 5PM to you.
“But Austin,” you tell me, “aren’t you anthropomorphizing?” While I admit roosters may not empathize with trans-Atlantic vacations, we know that chickens are dependent on daylight to calibrate their biological rhythms because we do it all the time. We increase egg production by simulating summer lighting year round, and alter feed intake in broilers by changing their daylight cycle. We also use this trick to bring mares into heat.
The loss of rhythm observed in 24 hour dim light is likely to become more and more sporadic, and even more so if the roosters were housed singly (as there is some group consensus due to competitive crowing). I would propose that if you could keep the roosters on a light cycle that progressively moved forward an hour a day until dawn was at 2pm, the roosters would crow with the same strict rhythm independent of the actual sun. If the authors of the study choose to pursue this hypothesis, an easy test would be to simply progress their artificial sun’s rise and fall over time.
Alternatively, we could fly several roosters with us to Paris, and see if they wake us up before the Louvre opens.
Shimmura, T., & Yoshimura, T. (2013). Circadian clock determines the timing of rooster crowing Current Biology, 23 (6) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.015