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This Chicken Is So Goth It Makes Darth Vader Jealous

The Ayam Cemani chicken is the world's blackest and most expensive chicken. Max Pixel (CC0 1.0)

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It's not often you look at an animal and think "I bet all the goth kids wish they had a chicken like that."

Meet the Ayam Cemani, the Darth Vader of chickens. All visible parts of the chicken's exterior — feathers, beak, tongue, comb and talons — are black, and it would seem as if the darkness should end there. Not so! Its inky exterior is just a teaser for the darkness within. It turns out the bones, organs and muscles of the Ayam Cemani are all black as well. Which, in addition to their rarity, explains why these birds are so popular amongst chicken aficionados. They're also dubbed the "Lamborghini of poultry," because the going price for these guys can range between $200 for a single egg layer and $5,000 for a full-grown mating pair.

Native to the Indonesian island of Java, the Ayam Cemani has been used in rituals and kept as status pets by the elite for centuries — they were thought to have black, enchanted blood that could lift curses or heal ailments. (Strangely enough, the blood is one of the only obviously normally pigmented things about these birds, aside from their cream-colored eggs.) But when you look at an Ayam Cemani, the superstitions around its being magical seem completely rational because this chicken is gorgeous. In the sunlight, their plumage isn't matte black like a charcoal briquette — it's iridescent like a Hubble Telescope rendering of a nebula in deep space, like looking into the most hypnotic oil-covered puddle in the mall parking lot. These chickens are complete knockouts.

But why? What could possibly cause a chicken's flesh and bones to appear to have been pickled in India ink? It turns out, Ayam Cemani is the world's most extreme example of a condition called dermal hyperpigmentation, or fibromelanosis. Some other chicken varieties have this condition to varying degrees — the Silkie Bantam, the Vietnamese H'Mong and the Swedish Svarthöna — but none of their genomes have achieved the complete internal and external blackout you see in the Ayam Cemani.

Strangely enough, scientists believe the mutation that leads to fibromelanosis in chickens is so unusual it most likely happened only once, in a single bird that lived thousands of years ago. No one knows how the gene traversed the globe from one jet-black bird, but Marco Polo wrote in 1298 about black-boned chickens while he was travelling in Asia, so the gene probably made its way around the world via trade routes.

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