The Americas: the origin of wild turkey

Birds descend from a group of dinosaurs called theropods (from Greek meaning “beast feet”). The Turkey and chicken have the closest overall chromosome pattern to their dinosaur ancestor, possibly Tyrannosaurus Rex!

After the dinosaurs were gone, mammals and birds were able to become more diverse and occupy all the areas that the dinosaurs had previously dominated.

Image of Avian chart

T. rex belongs to a theropod subcategory known as coelurosaurs (“hollow-tailed lizards”).

Above, skeleton of a Turkey next to the mighty T.Rex.

Tyrannosaurus lived during what is referred to as the Lancian faunal stage (Maastrichtian age) at the end of the Late Cretaceous. Tyrannosaurus ranged from Canada in the north to at least New Mexico in the south of Laramidia.  During this time Triceratops was the major herbivore in the northern portion of its range, while the titanosaurian sauropod Alamosaurus “dominated” its southern range. Tyrannosaurus remains have been discovered in different ecosystems, including inland and coastal subtropical, and semi-arid plains.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) evolved more than 11 million years ago. 

In 2014, Professor Griffin (University of Kent) discovered from his research that the: ‘Bird genomes are distinctive in that they have more tiny microchromosomes than any other vertebrate group. These small packages of gene-rich material are thought to have been present in their dinosaur ancestors.

‘We found that the chicken has the most similar overall chromosome pattern to its avian dinosaur ancestor.’

The research, which formed part of a vast study carried out over the past four years by the international Avian Phylogenomics Consortium, involved the analysis of the whole genome structure of the chicken, turkey, Pekin duck, zebra finch and budgerigar.

Disentangling the ancestral line of the Turkey from other birds back to a particularly relevant dinosaur is not easy. There is the fact that Tyrannosaurus rex and Meleagris gallopavo share a surprising skeletal characteristic: they both have a wishbone. Then there is Velociraptor,  a one-metre tall, two-legged predator that lived more than 70m years ago. Equipped with large claws on each leg, it was a close relative to the earliest birds. In a study of the fossilised forearms of velociraptors found in Mongolia in 1998, palaeontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History found “quill knobs” – bumps where the feathers used for flight in modern birds are anchored to the bone with ligaments. 

“The more that we learn about these animals the more we find that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor,” said Professor Norell.

“Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.”

Because of velociraptor’s relatively short forelimbs, the feathers would not have helped it to fly.

Known more formerly as the furcula, the wishbone is a flexible v-shaped bone that fuses the collarbones at the sternum. For birds, the wishbone is critical to flight: it acts as a spring that stores and releases energy generated by contractions in the breast muscles during flapping.

T. rex never went airborne — however, it did rely on its wishbone for structural support.

Wild turkeys, who live all over areas of the Americas, soar up to roost in trees at night. Some accounts clock them at 55 MPH (in short bursts). For reference, T. rex was a runner, and ran 18 MPH on average — about as fast as a polar bear today. 

Thousands of years later, but long before the Europeans arrived, the Americas were so familiar with wild turkeys that even this small clay whistle was beautifully created long before Christianity.

Columbus will have seen the turkeys amongst other amazing sights, when he landed in the Bahamas, and no doubt reported eating them amongst many other amazing foods never before digested by Europeans. To the natives they considered these common produce in their homeland.

9 years after Columbus discovered the New World, King Ferdinand II of Aragon – acting through the bishop of Valencia – ordered Miguel de Passamonte to bring a tom and a hen back to Spain for breeding. There is no written evidence that this plan to breed turkeys did succeed. But they became fashionable in Italy where it has been recorded Alessandro Geraldini, Bishop of Santa Domingo, presented his friend, Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci, with a pair in 1520, for example, he gave instructions that they were to be admired for their rarity rather than eaten and for a brief while thereafter they became the latest fashion accessory in Renaissance Rome. No self-respecting cardinal thought their palace gardens complete without a few birds strutting around the place. Cardinal Salviati, a member of a particularly notable Florentine family, was especially famous for his flock of turkeys.

By the middle of the 16th century the turkey became a delicacy. As Francois Rabelais’ mention of them in his Pantagruel (1548) suggests, turkey was initially an ‘elite’ foodstuff. In 1549, for example, Catherine de’ Medici had a feast of 70 turkeys served to her guests at a Parisian banquet, while her son, Charles IX, was gratified to be presented with a gift of a dozen tasty birds by the people of Amiens at about the same time. But before long turkey had become the food of choice for the masses, too, although not without some social upset. In 1557 the Patricians of Venice were so concerned about the widespread consumption of this ‘elite’ dish that sumptuary laws were passed to restrict it to the nobility.

In 1560 laws had to be passed to prevent turkeys bred for slaughter from being allowed to roam through the streets of London and it was amid such turkey-based chaos that the bird began to emerge as an ‘aspirational’ staple of the Christmas dinner table.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see
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