Turkey Battle: Wild vs. Domestic

Scientists delve deep into why and how the turkey -- that ends up on our plates -- turned out the way it is.
Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- They may sound the same, but wild and domestic turkeys do have their differences, from their dramatically different looks to their distinct meat flavor and tenderness. But scientists wanted to delve deeper into why and how the turkey -- that ends up on the plates of more than 46 million Americans each year -- turned out the way it is. 

“The changes in the domestic turkey have largely been due to selection for increased meat production. And so that's led to very large birds,” said Kristin Stover at the University of California, Irvine.

Stover and her colleagues wanted to see how these large birds compared to their wild turkey counterparts. “So, I raised the wild and domestic turkeys myself.”

Wild turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour. Using high-speed cameras, Stover measured how fast both turkeys could run. “I found that the domestic turkeys were much slower than the wild turkeys,” said Stover.

Which isn’t too surprising considering most domestic turkeys are bred to carry more meat on their bones. “I was interested in looking at the bone support that's actually carrying all this weight,” she said.

To study this, Stover also took CT scans of both turkeys. 

“I CT scanned the turkeys every two weeks until they were 14 weeks old. And the biggest reason that I stopped was because the domestic turkeys got too large for the rotating C-arm of the CT scanner.”

The results showed that domestic turkeys were not just a bigger version of wild turkeys. “They actually have shorter bones than you might expect based on their increase in body mass. So even though a bone is short, it's very strong,” said Stover.

Another unique difference, and fun fact, is that domestic turkeys waddle when they walk but wild turkeys don’t. So genetically speaking, wild and domestic turkeys are the same species, but that’s about where their similarities end -- according to science.


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Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.