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The Strange Bird We Bring Home for Thanksgiving Dinner

Selective Breeding Produced the Modern Turkey

By

The Strange Bird We Bring Home for Thanksgiving Dinner

Small White Turkey

USDA

If you are one of the more environmentally or nutritionally conscious Thanksgiving day diners, you may wonder whether the side dish you're eating is made from one of the several GMO varieties of corn since 88% of it grown in North America is genetically engineered. However, there's a good chance you will completely overlook the extent of genetic modifications that hundreds of years of breeding have wrought on the massive bird that's the centerpiece of the feast. While genetic engineering can quickly produce select gene alternations, traditional selective breeding can also produce massive changes with just a bit more time. Selective genetic breeding of the wild turkey has created a completely unnatural fowl.

Ben Franklin's Affection for Wild Turkey

You might remember that founding father Ben Franklin thought the turkey would make a better national symbol for the United States than the eagle, which was chosen. It's hard to believe he could have been taking about the massively obese, dimwitted, semi-crippled, flightless fowl whose carcass graces our holiday tables. In fact, he wasn't. The wild turkey to which Franklin referred, while not petit, can run up to 25 mph, is muscular enough to fly up to a mile, often roosts in trees when not nesting, and has a gorgeous coat of feathers.

Thanksgiving Turkeys Emigrated from Europe

Unless someone you know is a hunter, the turkey at the center of your Thanksgiving celebration is a domesticated bird that is alien to the eastern wild turkeys with which Franklin was familiar. Modern domesticated turkeys are actually derived from stocks raised by indigenous central Americans that the Spanish explorers took back to Europe in the 1500s. The early settlers on the US East Coast brought the descendants of these domesticated turkey back with them from Europe a few hundred years later. Some of these cultivated birds were even on the Mayflower with the first colonists. Though it is not clear if these reimported turkeys made it on the menu for the first Thanksgiving meal, it is their descendants that are the culinary stars in most US households today.

The Domesticated Beast

A thousand years or so of breeding has produced a ghostly white obese bird that's too heavy to fly, has trouble walking, and can't even mate. Over the last century, breeding has intensified and turkeys have doubled in size to an average of over 29 pounds. Some breeding programs have even produced 50 pound male birds! Since the 1960s, artificial insemination has become the required breeding technique for domesticated turkeys that have breasts so disproportionately large that they prevent love birds from "getting it on" naturally.

The Domesticated Beast

With the completion of the turkey genome DNA sequence in 2010, researchers now have clear genetic map with which to design and engineer even more improvements to our turkey stock. Dr. Rami Dalloul, one of the researchers that contributed to the turkey genome sequencing, noted, when it was published, that it will "lead to development of new tools that producers can use to breed turkeys that have desirable texture, flavor, and leanness, which will directly impact consumer products." While today's turkey is the product of human influenced selective evolution, who knows what the future holds for the fowl as directed DNA engineering opens up more possibilities for new genetic alternations?

(Published: Nov 18, 2012)

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