Not Your Pilgrim’s Turkey

As we get ready for a great traditional Thanksgiving feast, I often wonder if this meal is really what the pilgrims and Native Americans would have eaten. Most likely our traditions have nothing to do with what really went down. We cannot even be sure that the first Thanksgiving had a turkey, and even if they did, according to a new study, this main dish would be genetically different than the bird present at the first Thanksgiving.

 “Ancient turkeys weren’t your Butterball,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics. “We set out to compare the genetic diversity of the domestic turkeys we eat today with that of the ancestral wild turkey from South Mexico. Some of what we found surprised us.” First to note is that all commercial turkey lines have descended from the South Mexican turkey that was first domesticated in 800 BC.

To obtain the turkeys’ genetic code, researchers sequenced the genomes of domestic turkeys from seven commercial lines and compared the genomes to those of three museum specimens of the South Mexican turkeys collected in 1899 from Chihuahua, Mexico.

What researchers found was that the domestic turkey exhibits less genetic variation than not only its ancestral wild counterparts, but the species has less diversity compared to other livestock breeds, like domestic pigs or chickens.

“It is often the case that selection in domestication reduces the level of variation,” Fleischer said. “What did surprise us, however, is how well the ancient DNA from the three museum specimens worked to generate the genome sequences needed to determine the genetic variation and structure. These data and this approach show great promise for determining what genes were involved in the process of turkey domestication.”

Turkey is the second largest contributor of poultry meat consumed worldwide and the production per bird doubled between 1970 and 2008 as breeders started selecting traits that would appeal to consumers. However, this genetic “improvement” of farm animals has resulted in a loss of genetic diversity.

The research is important in order to discover the differences between ancient and modern domesticated turkeys, which can predict any unforeseen problems that may threaten the stability of the commercial turkey lines.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume more than 45 million turkeys every Thanksgiving. So gobble up and enjoy your turkey day!




2 responses to “Not Your Pilgrim’s Turkey”

  1. laromer says :

    It is incredible that the turkeys were are eating this holiday season are not even native to the United States. Who would have thought that at our “American Thanksgiving” we would be eating a south Mexican turkey? We think that we are having the same meal that the Pilgrims and the Native Americas shared in 1621 on the Plymouth Plantation. There are always those images of the two groups sitting down to a meal with a nice big turkey as the centerpiece. I think that if the Pilgrims and Native American could see us today they would be astonished that we are still celebrating this tradition every November. Imagine if Ben Franklin had is way and the turkey was a national bird! What would we be eating during the holidays? Maybe something that is originally from the US?

    “I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” – Ben Franklin (Source:

    • Sabrina says :

      I had no idea that our turkey’s weren’t really our turkeys! I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. I’m not surprised that we’ve messed with the turkeys either. We can’t leave anything alone. To solve the abuse of turkey eating on Thanksgiving I suggest doing an Italian style Thanksgiving, which means lots of pasta and red sauce instead of turkey. I’m only sort of kidding 🙂

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