Running Around Like Headless Chickens [Note: Grisly Article]

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Why is it that Mike the Chicken could live without a head?

Mike with car jpg
Mike the Headless Chicken
It was the 10th of September in 1945 and Clara and Lloyd Olsen were hungry. Conveniently, they kept chickens and roosters, so Lloyd picked up his favourite axe and wandered out to pick off one unlucky resident. His mother in law was coming to stay and he knew that she loved the neck of the chicken the best of all, so he decided to aim to leave as much of the fowl's neck intact as possible when he made the kill.The rooster he picked was Mike and he swung his axe, lopping off Mike's head in one clean movement. Mike staggered around a bit - as most beheaded birds tend to - and Lloyd wasn't phased.That, he thought, was that.  Until Mike, seemingly unharmed, picked himself up and carried on pecking for food and preening his feathers....

Lloyd, like most of us, was rather stumped. He left Mike be and returned the next morning to find the chicken snuggled up and sleeping peacefully, having tucked his stump under his wing. While many of us would have backed slowly away, probably desperately trying to remember which is the 'right way' to sign out a crucifix, Lloyd instead made a decision: if Mike had so much will to live, then Lloyd would make sure to help him.
From then on Mike became more of a pet. Lloyd found that he could feed the decapitated chicken with an eyedropper, putting grain and water down his neck. Mike thrived, carrying on growing from 2 1/2 lbs to a 'robust' 8lbs and lived for a total of 18 months. The Olsens exhibited Mike at sideshows and had him insured for $10,000. He was featured in the Life and Times Magazine and even achieved a Guinness world record. Tragically, Mike finally died in a motel when he began to choke and Lloyd couldn't clear Mike's open oesophagus quickly enough. With that, the tale of 'Miracle Mike' came to an end.

So how on earth could Mike survive without a head?

Keeping Mike alive
Mike wasn't a miracle in the end, but he was certainly remarkable. When Lloyd brought Mike to the University of Utah in salt lake city, the excited scientists investigated what it was which could keep a chicken alive when it appeared to have no brain at all.
Firstly, Mike had missed bleeding to death due to a clot that had formed in the jugular vein. While Mike's head had indeed been severed the majority of his brain stem and one ear remained on his body. In chickens, the majority of their reflex actions are controlled by the brain stem and so Mike was able to remain quite healthy and would carry on in his basic behavioural functions. For chickens, not being altogether the most intelligent of species, this was enough for Mike to appear completely 'normal' even after his brush with death. To put it scientifically, Mike's central motor generators enabled basic homoeostatic functions to carry on as normal in the absence of a cerebral cortex.

The reason why the brain and brain stem are so seemingly separated his down to chicken anatomy. Dr.Wayne.J.Kuenzel - a poultry physiologist and neurobiologist the the Univeristy of Arkansas - explained this as due to the angle of the Chicken's brain. The skull of a chicken contains two massive openings to the eyes, which means that the brain has to be shoved up into the skull at an angle of 45 degrees. If you cut off the head too high - anything above the eyes or lower beak - and a large portion of the necessary brain can remain intact.

Lobotomised chickens are a grisly but completely natural result of an axe swing gone awry, but some scientists have suggested that it might pose a useful -if macabre - solution to the issues of factory farming. The UK architect student Andrew Ford suggested in 2012 that rearing specifically brain-dead chickens that would be farmed for their meat would be the best way to curb chicken suffering. However this idea, despite its pragmatism, was altogether too grim to be adopted.

Does this mean that other animals can live after decapitation?

As the issues of Mike's biology shows the word 'live' is really a grey area. There are plenty of creatures that share similar reflexive organs that work either in tandem with or elsewhere from the main head, and these can create some freaky results following decapitation.

Some venomous snakes, for example, continue to be aggressive hours after death, though they are the reverse of Miracle Mike: it is the heads that seem to be 'alive', not the bodies.
If you feel like never sleeping again, then feel free to see this in action in the video below.

Despite appearances, the snake is not actually alive following on from its decapitation but its lifelike reactions are again down to the reptile's clever biology. The snake has heat-sensitive pits either side of its face and, when these sense body head, it automatically triggers a threat response and the dead venomous snake still tries to bite you.
As with all these creatures this is no doubt fascinating, but it does raise the question of how far do these animals really think, if so much is simply reflex?

Another creature designed to serve as posthumous nightmare-fuel is the humble octopus. Often after freshly being killed for food, octopus tentacles will continue moving and, on occasion, actively trying to prevent itself from being eaten by clinging onto the bowl it was served in. This is down to another fascinating construction of the central nervous system: in an octopus half the neurons it has are located in the tentacles. The main brain serves to simply give direction and the tentacles are in a fashion ready programmed to carry out that task. When the brain is severed, if the body is fresh enough, the tentacles carry on acting out their most usual tasks automatically. That is: "find food" and "prevent us from becoming food."

In many ways the way human bodies work is similar. While we may think of an action 'food!' our arms and hands, over years of development, can pretty much do what they have to do seemingly unconsciously: you keep hold of the fork, you lift it to your mouth, you chew, you swallow etc. While for us this still involves the main brain-stem (even breathing needs your main brain's input) , for other actions the brain isn't really consulted. For example, if you burn yourself it isn't your brain which causes the flinch, but the nerves in your spinal column reacting automatically and separately in your defence.

Frogs can swim, croak and fight without a brain; headless fruit flies can carry out complex actions as normal; and the hearts of turtles - due to 'pacemaker cells' - still keep beating for over half an hour after death. And of course, the infamous cockroaches can carry on living after decapitation due to a distributed nervous system and efficient breathing mechanism that allows them to function as normal until they naturally starve to death.

Alright, I know that this article has been rather grisly this week, and thank you for sticking with me so far. Please feel free to enjoy Calming Cat for a bit before we get even darker.

Ah, that's better.
Ok, ready?

Even to this day, we're not sure how 'alive' decapitated people are, albeit that this 'life' lasts for no more than a minute

The Guillotine is perhaps the most infamous execution technique that has been in common use throughout history. While beheading had been a form of execution since time immemorial, it could at times be brutally inefficient: Mary Queen of Scots, for example, suffered multiple blows to the neck with a ceremonial sword before she was finally killed. The guillotine on the other hand - being in use since at least 1560 - provided a mechanised manner of execution which was believed to be swift and as painless as possible, while also being dramatic enough to serve as a visible symbol of power. With the method of execution being fairly consistent now, many emerging scientists from as early as 1796 began to wonder seriously about how swift and painless this death really was. Did the decapitated heads maintain any sort of conciousness?

Henri Languille's execution by guillotine
Doctors, for the main part, insisted that the shock of the dropped blade must cause immediate unconsciousness and that actual death came a matter of seconds later due to loss of blood supply to the brain. It was believed that when the heart stops that conciousness can only be retained for a maximum of four seconds if standing, eight if sitting and twelve if lying down, and this largely holds true today.
Still, this knowledge in itself is unsettling. Try counting out four seconds while sitting still. Then eight. Then twelve. A second can be a very long time indeed.

It was common knowledge that decapitated heads twitched and moved their eyes and lips but, like the octopus' tentacles or the snake's bite, these were put down to nothing more than posthumous spasms. But many scientists weren't completely convinced. One Dr.Beaurieux was so determined to get to the bottom of the problem that he enlisted the help of the convict Henri Lenguille to study the doomed man's activities after his execution. This is what he reported:

"Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck …
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.
Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.
I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds."

While Dr.Beaurieux was convinced, similar experiments have not been quite so successful. For example, in 1836 and in 1879 the murderers Lacenaire and Prunier were asked by scientists to wink after decapitation in order to indicate consciousness, but neither managed to do so. Of course, it is likely that the impact struck them to unconsciousness or - rather understandably - they were too preoccupied with having their freaking head cut off to concentrate. Nevertheless, there was no definite conclusion for post-decapitation conciousness.

Nowadays beheadings are thankfully far, far less commonplace. But the rumours of post-decapitation conciousness remain in more modern examples. In 1989 for example, an army veteran said that when he saw a friend decapitated in a car crash, the severed head showed emotions of shock, followed by terror and grief, its eyes glancing back at the detached body. Indeed, in 2011 Dutch scientists use an electroencephalography machine to observe the brain activity in decapitated mice and showed that, rather than snapping straight to unconsciousness, electrical activity remained at the exact same frequency for nearly four seconds, and occasionally even longer.
Current medical theory puts the potential length of time of conciousness at up to 13 seconds, provided that the decapitating blow didn't knock the victim unconcious and allowing for individual variations due to build, health and the immediate circumstances of decapitation.
"The 13 seconds is the amount of high energy phosphates that the cytochromes in the brain have to keep going without new oxygen and glucose"

Dr.Wright stated: in the end it was always the lack of oxygen and blood to the brain that ended in death. Any movement during or thereafter is more likely to be muscle spasms rather than articulate expressions.

No matter how horrifying the notion of headless life is, it gives us fascinating insight to how our, and animals', bodies and minds work every day.

There is also one little silly silver lining to the tale of Mike the unsettling headless chicken.
Mike's fame lives on through his very own festival, now in it's 17th year. If you head down to Fruita Colarado on May you can take part in a 5k run, a disc golf tournament, wing and peep eating contests, a car show, artisan food booths and live music, all in his 'honour'.
Perhaps it's a testament to the human spirit that we can make a party and a tourist industry out of even the most macabre of subjects. Maybe, given the strangeness of our world, that's not a bad thing at all.

-Mike the Headless Chicken Official Site - Here's why a chicken can live without a head
-Cracked: 6 terrifying creatures that keep going after they're dead.
-Today I found out: cockroaches can live without a head
-All Kinds Of History: Some Experiments with Severed Heads
-The Guillotined Head
-Damn - Decapitation
-Live can a severed head live?
-European history: Does the head of a guillotined individual remain briefly alive?
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