Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did Science Build A Better Turkey?

'Tis the season for the local supermarkets to feature delicately balanced displays of gravy, stuffing mix, and cranberry sauce. Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and the centerpiece of the upcoming meal for 95% of families will be the traditional roast turkey.

Americans gobble up a lot of turkey: 267 million  turkeys are sold in the United States each year. Considering all those turkeys, it may surprise you to hear that there's one that dominates the competition at the supermarket: the broad-breasted white turkey. Most of us have never eaten anything else.

For several decades researchers have been using science to build a better Thanksgiving turkey.  Today's big turkeys owe their large size to the incorporation of a special diet, vaccinations, and selective breeding. With selective breeding, also known as artificial selection, two members of the same species are bred to exploit desirable dominant characteristics -- which they pass along to their offspring.  In the case of Thanksgiving turkeys, the characteristic of choice is: big breast muscles.

The result is the big-breasted "super turkey". While this is the desired result for consumers, the turkeys themselves face problems due to their bulked-up bodies.  Industry-bred birds have such unusually large breasts, so disproportionate with the rest of their bodies that they often have trouble standing, walking and mating.  Therefore these turkeys rely on artificial insemination for reproduction. In addition, the mother turkey is never in contact with her young. This means that the young chicks don't get a chance to pick up on survival skills or behavioral clues from the mother as they would in the wild. These specially bred, domesticated turkeys are totally dependent on breeders for survival.  Their limited family tree has bred them to be dim-witted and disease-prone; so they're given antibiotics to prevent a variety of ailments. Industry turkeys are also abnormally fast-growing, reaching an average of 32 pounds in a mere 18 weeks.

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