Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Gobble Up Some Facts About Turkeys

Just in time to impress your family at dinner (or to divert them from the annual inquisition), here are some juicy turkey facts to have on hand...

1. The Jurassic Park centerpiece at your Thanksgiving table.

See it now?
Like other birds, turkeys are descendants of dinosaurs. The dinosaur on your Thanksgiving table is about 150 million years in the making, branching off from their close relatives, the pheasant, about 11 million years ago. So even if you’re served a dry bird this year, it may become more palatable when you remember that it is a saurischian dinosaur, related to Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor.

Ben Franklin was a big admirer of the turkey. In fact, he favored the turkey over the bald eagle to be the US National Bird. He is quoted as saying, "For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America" - more on that below...

2. Taming the turkey:  how the turkey was won.

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are indigenous to wilderness regions of North America and grew to larger sizes after migrating to Central America where there were fewer predators. About 800 BC, Olmec farmers in this region were the first people believed to have used the turkey on a wide scale, harnessing the meat and eggs for food and the feathers and bones for tools and decoration. By the time of the Aztecs, who called the bird “huehxolotl”, the turkey was domesticated.

The larger size of domesticated turkeys has severely compromised their ability to run fast and fly like their wild turkey counterparts, which is another benefit for the farmer since a turkey’s eyes are on the sides of its head. This ocular arrangement coupled with a flexible neck gives the turkey a 360-degree field of vision, good enough to spot a suspicious axe-wielding farmer lurking nearby.

3. What does a turkey have in common with a peacock?

Male turkeys puff their feathers, strut and gobble loudly, and fan out their tail like a peacock in an effort to win over a female companion, who will produce up to 18 eggs per mate. The courtship rituals for both turkeys and peacocks are risky, as these flamboyant displays may draw the attention of predators (and TMZ). But this is how the ladies select their men – they don’t have the benefit of DNA-based matchmaker sites to find suitable mates. According to evolutionary psychologists, many species rely upon courtship signals as a metric for strength and intelligence. If the male can produce such a display and get away with it, he must be strong and smart enough to outwit predators – those are genes that you would want in your pool.

Turkeys evolved to blend into the wilderness. Males, however, stand out when they fan their tail, gobble, and dance. Male turkeys do this to attract females, who have tails that are comparatively boring and speak with gentle clucks rather than obnoxious gobbles.
4. The name “turkey” is based on a mistake.

English settlers arriving on the East Coast of North America around 1500 mistook the turkey (right) to be Guinea fowl (left), a bird that the English imported from Turkey at the time (incidentally, Turkish merchants acquired the fowl from West Africa). However, as indicated above, this is wrong – turkeys are not from Turkey. Despite the error, the name has stuck and shows no sign of ever being changed - "pass the huehxolotl and gravy" just doesn’t have a nice ring to it.

5. Does eating turkey make you sleepy?

Some people have claimed that the tryptophan in turkey meat makes us feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. You can get the scoop on tryptophan in a previous post found here. 

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan, Ph.D.

Russo, E., Scicchitano, F., Citraro, R., Aiello, R., Camastra, C., Mainardi, P., Chimirri, S., Perucca, E., Donato, G., & De Sarro, G. (2012). Protective activity of α-lactoalbumin (ALAC), a whey protein rich in tryptophan, in rodent models of epileptogenesis Neuroscience, 226, 282-288 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.09.021

Bruce KR, Steiger H, Young SN, Kin NM, Israël M, & Lévesque M (2009). Impact of acute tryptophan depletion on mood and eating-related urges in bulimic and nonbulimic women. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 34 (5), 376-82 PMID: 19721848

1 comment:

  1. Heritage turkeys can fly and run very well and have very sharp wild instincts, like bantam chickens and gamefowl. Meat and egg birds are "stupid" and lack in natural instincts like mating and brooding, and normaly are bad parents. Also they don't know how to escape predatory animals, heritage turkeys and some heritage chickens(bantams and some others) know very well how to escape and know how to divert the predator if needed( in case they have siblings they use diversion techniques that will attract the predator attention to them and away of the chicks/poults);)