A Brief History of the Turkey

The bird that graces most tables in the U.S. every Thanksgiving was once threatened with extinction.

Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopova

Early explorers of the New World had never seen anything quite like the turkey. The turkey’s scientific name, Meleagris gallopova (“guineafowl peacock”) reflects this confusion; however, the two birds for which it is named are only distantly related. It’s been variously suggested that its common name in English sprung from Columbus himself, after the noise it makes (“tuka, tuka”); a supposed Native American name of “firkee”; trade routes that brought the bird to Europe from the country bearing the same name; and the Hebrew tukki, which means “big bird”.

Anyone who has encountered a flock of wild turkeys strutting in a field or awkwardly running across a rural road can attest to their somewhat goofy grandeur. They nest and forage on the ground and prefer to get around on foot, but they don’t hesitate to fly and frequently roost over 15 meters up in the tree canopy. They can even traverse large bodies of water by swimming. Adaptable and hardy, 5 subspecies of Wild Turkey inhabit various biomes in North America and occur in every state except Alaska. They flourish in any kind of open forest with scattered clearings, from the coniferous forests of the Southwest, the Everglades of Florida, and the Great Plains, to our familiar temperate deciduous forests of the East. They have even been introduced to Hawaii. In the wild turkeys eat tree nuts, berries, seeds, buds, vegetation, and arthropods, and will take an occasional small vertebrate if the opportunity arises.

Ocellated Turkey, Meleagris ocellata

Along with the Muscovy Duck, the Wild Turkey is one of only two birds native to North America that have been domesticated. Its close relative, the smaller but stunning Ocellated Turkey (M.ocellata), occurs only in Yucatán and northern parts of neighboring Belize and Guatemala. It is listed as Near Threatened due to deforestation of their rainforest habitat. (Check out this awesome video of a male trying to impress a flock of females.) The history of turkey domestication goes back nearly three thousand years.

Native Americans domesticated turkeys not for their meat, but for their feathers—in central Mexico around 800 B.C., and again in the southwestern U.S. by ancestral Pueblans around 200 B.C. The feathers were used for robes and blankets. Although they kept several distinct breeds, the ancient Pueblans didn’t incorporate domesticated turkey into their diet until around 1100 A.D. A more recent finding of M. gallopova bones at a Mayan site in Guatamala (over 400 miles south of their native range) indicates that the Maya people were keeping domestic turkeys around 300 B.C.

E.K. Thornton et al., 2012.

E.K. Thornton et al., 2012.

See this picture in its original context here.

Now extinct in the wild, this Aztec subspecies (M. g. merriami) is thought to be the turkey first brought to Europe by Spanish explorers, perhaps as early as 1500. The turkey gained popularity and spread across Europe, and many different breeds were developed over the next century. The domestic turkey was then brought back to the U.S. from England; a document written in 1584 lists “turkeys, male and female” to be provided to future colonies in the New World, and as promised they arrived with the colonists in 1608. Some crossing with their wild Eastern counterparts did occur, whether intentionally or not, and the Broad-breasted Whites we buy at the store today are their descendants.

Contrary to our modern traditions, there is no evidence that turkey, either wild or domesticated, was served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. In Ohio it was the became popular for Christmas dinner by 1787, but the recommendation of turkey as the Thanksgiving meal’s centerpiece can be almost entirely attributed to popular magazine editor (and composer of Mary Had A Little Lamb) Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was a savvy businesswoman, the 1800s version of Martha Stewart, and she relentlessly publicized today’s traditional Thanksgiving recipes in magazines and cookbooks. She also petitioned various presidents over a 36-year period to make Thanksgiving an official holiday—not only to champion her ideas of what the feast should be, but to designate a day for the nation to give thanks for its blessings. Her request was finally granted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and the third Thursday in November finally became the official Thanksgiving holiday.

Photo courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, North Carolina

Meanwhile, much like the Passenger Pigeon and the American Bison, the once widespread and numerous Wild Turkey was seen as an inexhaustible resource. In Hale’s time they were killed by the hundreds and sold for a quarter, and by 1880 the turkey had disappeared from Ohio entirely. But it wasn’t just over-hunting that nearly led to the Wild Turkey’s demise—it was habitat loss. Deforestation and conversion of land to crops on a massive scale, and the loss of nut-bearing trees—particularly the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)—was the main driver.

The majestic American Chestnut fell to the axe, but after 1904 it fell to a fungal blight (Cryphonectria parasitica). Introduced from Asia on two chestnut species brought over as ornamentals to the Bronx Zoological Park, the fungus nearly wiped out our native chestnut. Today, only a few pockets of mature trees persist in isolation. Stumps all over the Appalachians continue to resprout and grow into small trees until the fungus kills them, but efforts at bringing the chestnut back to our forests are underway. The turkey’s decline closely follows that of the chestnut, which produced massive amounts of mast for many other animals, including buffalo, deer, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and opossums (and humans too!). By the 1930s, the turkey was also reduced to a few isolated pockets that clung to survival in the most remote forest locations. The entire population dwindled to around 30 thousand.

By the time of the Second World War, the turkey’s native habitat was starting to regenerate. The stately chestnuts were gone but oak, hickory and maple were maturing in its place, and new conservation bills helped the turkey’s recovery. One such bill, the Lacey Act of 1905, prevented the interstate sale of taken wildlife; another, The Pittman–Robertson Act of 1937, taxed the sale of sporting goods and ammunition (thus generating conservation funds for wildlife recovery). Pen-rearing initiatives in the 1940s largely failed due to the turkey’s tendency to imprint on its human caregivers and rampant disease; it was such a flop that it’s been suggested that it slowed the turkey’s recovery by as much as two decades. Capture-and-release campaigns in the 1950s and beyond reintroduced the turkey back into its former range, and was much more successful. The turkey flourished, and by 1990 there were an estimated 3.5 million birds nationwide. No other game bird has responded so well to the efforts of game managers.

One of the turkey’s claims to fame is that Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his daughter in 1784, supported its becoming our national symbol; but actually, he only criticized the selection of the Bald Eagle, and mentioned in passing that he was glad that people thought the eagle looked too much like a turkey.

Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [Osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.

He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country… I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in 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.

This Thanksgiving, consider giving thanks that the wild counterpart to the bird on your table didn’t go the way of the dodo!



It’s a Mastodon Vertebra! Answer to FoW #28

Anterior view of the mastodon atlas.

Anterior view of the mastodon atlas.

Congrats to Dale and Bob who knew the right answer, and cryptically hid it in their responses, and to everyone else who guessed right or came awfully close! This is indeed the first cervical (neck) vertebra, also known as the atlas, of a mastodon. Why is it called an “atlas”!? Because of its position as the first vertebra, it in a sense it holds up the skull – reminiscent of Atlas of Greek mythology who held up the world. How do we know it’s a mastodon and not a mammoth? Well, there is one clear difference between the two species. The dorsal tubercle, which is the upward projecting protuberance at the top of the photo, is more pointed in mastodons but very flat and broad in mammoths. Mastodon remains are also much more common in Ohio than mammoths, so it’s more likely that one would find a mastodon bone.

Atlas vertebra of mastodon compared to other species.

Atlas vertebra of mastodon compared to other species.

Compare the size of the mastodon atlas with the first vertebrae of an elk, wolf, and rhesus macaque monkey (photo). The scale is six inches. It’s interesting that the atlas is the only vertebra that doesn’t have a distinctly visible central portion, called the body. The atlas is basically a ring of bone. In most mammals though, an atlas body remnant of some size is present. The partner to the atlas is second cervical vertebra, known as the axis, and it fits neatly into the posterior side of the atlas (see illustration). This structure of the atlas and axis allows rotation of the head.
Atlas and axis of a human.

Atlas and axis of a human.

We’re glad that our anonymous donor not only decided to give the specimen to a museum but provided information about where this bone was found. When we know where and when an object is collected it becomes a specimen valuable to science, rather than a curiosity of which we know little about. Many very important finds of Pleistocene species in Ohio have been found by people during normal tasks such as digging to install drainage tiles or to enlarge a pond, or walking along a stream. So if you find bones or teeth, let us know! We’re always happy to identify such finds. Then if you decide to donate them to a museum, you’re not only making a contribution to science but your name will be attached to that specimen in perpetuity! A good example, the Conway mastodon!

One Step Closer to Cloning a Mammoth

In May of 2013, an international team of scientists unearthed the frozen remains of a female mammoth on Maly Lyakhovsky Island, off the coast of the Republic of Sakha in Siberia. It was so fresh that it oozed blood, and one researcher reportedly even took a bite.

Initially only the tusks were visible above the ground. Further excavation revealed not only the rest of her head and trunk, but also three legs and mostly intact internal organs. Informally named “Buttercup”, her teeth reveal that she was around 50 at the time of her death, which was carbon-dated to around 43,000 years ago. This mammoth lived and breathed during a time when Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted and interbred.

Her stomach still contained buttercups and dandelions, and growth rings in her tusks suggest she had weaned 8 calves and had one miscarriage over the course of her long life. The hemoglobin in her blood was adapted to release oxygen in lower temperatures. Tooth marks on her skeleton indicate that she was partially eaten by wolves and other predators, but she froze solid soon after her death and remained that way until her discovery.

Photo credit: Renegade Pictures

Buttercup was about the size of a modern Asian Elephant, her closest living relative.

A number of frozen mammoths have been recovered in recent years as permafrost has thawed, including Yuka, a calf with its fur and mummified brain still intact. “Buttercup” is the oldest and most well-preserved. Analysis of her tissue has yielded the largest fragments of DNA yet recovered from a mammoth, which raises the question: If we can clone a mammoth, should we?

The question has created an interesting ethical dilemma. Rather than finding frozen sperm, it is more likely that fragments of DNA from today’s Asian Elephant will be used to “fill in the gaps” of the fragmented mammoth genome, which was 70% sequenced in 2008. Once fully assembled, the complete genome would be inserted into the egg of a modern elephant, which would then implanted into a modern female elephant. This elephant would then essentially act as an incubator for the genetically engineered mammoth.

Photo credit: National Geographic


“De-extinction” of any species is fraught with a laundry list of practical and ethical stumbling blocks. Further, successfully cloning a mammoth will require experimentation on dozens of endangered Asian Elephants. Should we subject them to a potentially life-threatening 22-month gestation period?  (Is 22 months even the normal gestation period for a mammoth?)

If brought to term, an ice age relic–adapted for roaming freely across frigid expanses of steppe with others of its kind–would be forced to live out its days in a concrete box, in today’s modern world with its tall rectangles, heat waves and endless loud noises.

It would be cool to see a real live mammoth, I admit. But is it cool enough to justify the prohibitive cost, the expenditure of increasingly limited resources, and the likely setbacks at the expense of a living species?

What do YOU think? Should we clone a mammoth? Let us know in the comments!


A surprise package arrives! Freak of the Week #28

Posterior view of the object.

Posterior view of the object.

One of the fun things about working in a museum is getting to see the wide variety of objects that people find, and then trying to identify them. We will occasionally get unsolicited packages in the mail, and you never know what you’re going to see! Well, one came last week and here are a few photos of the object. Rather than just telling you what it is, we’ll make it this week’s Freak of the Week! Can you identify it!? The object is about 13 inches wide and 8 inches high.

Anterior view.

Anterior view.

Posterior-lateral view.

Posterior-lateral view.

They’re Lacewing Eggs! Answer to Freak of the Week #26

This is something that apparently people have not noticed very often, so here’s Bob’s answer to this week’s puzzling “Freak”:

Green Lacewing Eggs

Green Lacewing Eggs

These are the eggs of the Green Lacewing. Green Lacewings are in the family Chrysopidae, in the insect order Neuroptera. The order also includes fishflies, snakeflies, and antlions.

The eggs were found hanging on a branch along the wetland boardwalk at Wahkeena Nature Preserve on September 25th. The eggs themselves are only about 1 or 2 mm long, with the silky looking stalk less than half an inch. Female lacewings typically lay 100 to 200 eggs – so this is only a small part of a total clutch. Lacewings apparently have learned not to “put all their eggs in one basket (branch or leaf)”. The eggs are reported to typically hatch in the fall, with the lacewings overwintering in a prepupa stage, or in some species as a newly hatched adult.

Green lacewing. Photo by Jim McCormac.

Green lacewing. Photo by Jim McCormac.

Adult Green Lacewings are attractive, delicate looking insects. Their wings certainly fit their name, as they look like oblong lace doilys, except that what would be an empty space in a doily is filled with a filmy, transparent membrane. Size varies, but most are less than half an inch long. The photo here is compliments of Jim Mccormac.

While some lacewings feed on pollen and nectar of flowers, the most common Green Lacewing is almost totally predaceous. The eggs hatch into a larva which looks a lot like an antlion, a small six-legged crawling tank with huge jaws on the front. The larvae crawl up the egg stalk, and then begin to look for aphids. Due to the aggressive appetite of both larvae and adults, they are sometimes called “aphid lions.” Organic gardeners sometimes purchase lacewing eggs, with recommendations of releasing 1,000 eggs in every 200 square feet of garden! Some sources suggest rather than buying eggs, to promote plants that seem to favor lacewings. These include some beauties, like cosmos, various sunflowers and dill – but also include things like dandelions and angelica.

The lacewing larvae are really quite an interesting predator. In areas where aphids are abundant, they crawl around waving their head from side to side – and if their maxillae strike something, they grab it. The maxillae are hollow, and they inject a digestive enzyme into the aphid – which can dissolve the aphids’ tissues in as little as 90 seconds into a slurry that the lacewing sucks up. Sounds like great material for a Sci-Fi movie! Get your favorite beverage and some popcorn and sit in front of the TV for a late-night freaky thriller. Or better yet, just scan the undergrowth of your backyard or favorite park for the real thing!

Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History

Tomorrow is Natural History Day at OHC!

BreakfastWithConway_111613_01Did you know that we have more than 29,000 specimens of fossils, rocks and minerals, plants, insects, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish? On Saturday Nov. 1 from 10 AM until noon, explore Ohio’s natural history with special activities for the whole family, all included with museum admission. Tour the exhibit Going, Going, Gone? Endangered and Extinct Species; get up close and personal with natural history specimens; discover animals all over the museum; meet Jennifer Rounds, author of the new children’s book A Flock for Martha; and learn about adventures awaiting you beyond the museum, from nature and wildlife groups who’ll be on hand. Click here for more information.

Ohio History Connection members: enjoy Breakfast With Conway (our resident mastodon) for just $5 per person or free if you bring a non-member friend! Advance registration required—call 800.686.1545.

Answer: FoW #27

Australian Dylan Maxwell recently reported that a tropical spider burrowed into his skin, leaving a foot-long wound going up his chest. There are a few problems with his story, some of which I covered in my last post, but let’s stick to the pictures.

First, the wound. It looks like a long, skinny burn mark–as if someone ran the end of a hot knife down his chest. It’s actively oozing lymph, and there are other reddened areas adjacent to the scar. The unmarked skin has a general reddish flush.

Here’s the same wound a couple weeks later, after it’s healed somewhat:DylanCapture

Although some people are indeed allergic to spider venom, which can cause localized swelling and itching and sometimes the release of lymph fluid at the bite site, no known species of spider burrows into living tissue or creates a track like this. It’s possible that it was some other kind of arachnid, but I have my doubts.

So if it wasn’t a spider, any other kind of arachnid, what made this distinctive wound?

jelly1Probably the same thing that did this!

Although this case is much worse than Dylan’s, we see a similar pattern here of long, skinny dark red marks and localized swelling.

Still stumped? Another clue is that this happened in Bali in early October. If you were in Bali, what would you do? Go to the beach, perhaps?

If you’ve spent any time in tropical Pacific waters, this sign will be a familiar sight:jelly

Box jellyfish are particularly deadly because they are not only large, but also venomous. The stinging cells (nematocysts) in their tentacles contain a chemical that causes blood vessels to leak potassium, which can ultimately cause cardiac arrest if enough venom is injected.

It probably wasn’t a box jelly that stung him, but the waters of Bali do have them, as well as smaller species of jellyfish that also cause a raised blister and lifelong scarring (warning: link not for the faint of heart!). A jellyfish sting causes immediate burning pain, which varies in severity depending on the species and the amount of skin affected. The stung skin initially appears somewhat reddened and swollen, like a mosquito bite, but fluid-filled blisters appear within 24 hours and the painful wound oozes lymph. As it heals, a dark scar forms.

What’s surprising is that the Australians haven’t picked up on this yet, or at least suggested that it’s a possibility. October through May is widely known to be “stinger season” along the tropical coasts of the country, and many people choose to avoid the water altogether. Even a disembodied piece of tentacle–probably what happened in Dylan’s case–can cause a painful sting.

Hopefully Dylan will get back to us soon with details about what the doctors removed from his body. I’m just as curious as you are, but as of this posting the internet seems to have forgotten all about it. Maybe it’s some kind of tiny burrowing beach crustacean. Or maybe, despite the millions of visitors that Bali’s beaches get every day, it is in fact a species of flesh-eating spider that has been heretofore unknown to science.

Or maybe he just got stung by a jellyfish.

Congrats to Mike for guessing correctly!




Freak of the Week #27: Spider Burrowing in Man’s Skin!?

You may have heard by now that Australian man Dylan Maxwell had a spider removed from his skin after it crawled into his appendix scar, leaving a blistering trail up his abdomen over the course of three days while he was on holiday in Bali. The doctors initially told him it was a “bug bite”, and sent him away with antihistamines. He returned a couple days later and they removed a dead spider from the scar.

But rest easy, folks! This story probably isn’t accurate.

Our first clue is that the story was originally published by NT News, a online tabloid newspaper–the equivalent of the U.S.’s National Enquirer.


The blistering scar, taken from Dylan’s Facebook page

So far, the only details regarding the incident have been submitted by Dylan himself, and have not been corroborated by outside sources–such as the doctors in Bali who examined him.

The alleged spider was taken away for “testing”, and his original Facebook post says he was not able to take a picture as it was extracted because he didn’t have his phone, so we have no documentation that it happened.

The stories all wrap up with “We’ll know what it was by next week”; but by “next week” we’ll be chattering about something else, like how different Renee Zellweger looks now, and will have forgotten all about Dylan’s incident.

This has all the earmarks of your garden-variety internet hoax.


It also helps to know a little bit about spider biology. Burrowing through flesh is not something that any known species of spider has the equipment or inclination for. Their mouth parts are evolved for piercing, not gouging. They are generally pretty soft-bodied, and their legs work by hydraulic pressure rather than muscle contraction. A spider of the size to make the kind of track on Dylan’s abdomen would not have legs with enough tensile strength to propel the spider forward through dense, irritated flesh.

He also reports that the spider burrowed into his appendix scar, but the scar would have to be pretty fresh to be a legitimate entrance into the skin. Given the other material he’s posted on his public Facebook page, you’d think going in for major surgery would have at least garnered a mention. I can find no evidence that he had his appendix removed within the 2-3 weeks before his Bali trip.

Although it is possible Dylan was invaded by some type of arachnid, this behavior is more expected from a mite or a tick, which have more robust exoskeletons and mouth parts that are more suited to chewing. Medical doctors are not necessarily known for their arthropod identification skills, but one might expect Balinese doctors to have a broader knowledge base. Although English is widely spoken in Bali, there may have been a language barrier as well.

This story has been picked up and circulated by several reputable and fact-checked news sources, shared on social media thousands of times, and is likely terrorizing a number of people’s dreams, but i’ll say it again: Relax, folks! Spiders. Don’t. Burrow. Into. Humans.

The ID of the critter allegedly removed from Dylan’s scar has not yet been reported. But this looks an awful lot like something else to me…


Screen cap from NT News interview, showing the healing scar


I’ll give you a hint: it’s not something we need to worry about here in Ohio.

What does this look like to YOU? Let us know in the comments!



Columbus Audubon 5k on Nov 8!

Looking for a way to stay in shape and promote environmental awareness and conservation at the same time?

Consider Columbus Audubon’s inaugural Take Flight 5K, happening Saturday, November 8th at 9AM. Join fellow outdoors enthusiasts on a paved nature trail beginning and ending at the Scioto Audubon Metro Park and Grange Insurance Audubon Center. Not into running? No problem! You can also register as a walker to enjoy the trail at a more leisurely pace–on your own, or with a buddy or two!

If you’re not sure what to do with the kids, bring them along! They can build a birdhouse at the Grange Audubon Center while you walk or run.

Register for the Take Flight 5K here, but be sure to sign up by October 25! Registration fees are $25 for runners and $20 for walkers. Each participant receives a long sleeved t-shirt and other goodies, and the race is timed for serious runners. All proceeds from the event directly support Columbus Audubon.

Comments on Freak of the Week #25; and new FoW #26

Sandstone slab from Tarlton Cross.

Sandstone slab from Tarlton Cross.

Well, the consensus on this sandstone slab that was found near Tarlton Cross is that it’s a naturally weathered stone. The photos were also posted on the OHC Archaeology blog and sent to several geologists, and everyone seems to agree that the stone was not altered by humans. One of the best comments was from a local archaeologist who lives in the Tarlton Cross area and said he’s been all over the site and this is “just a common old rock”. When in doubt, ask someone who is the most familiar with the area! We’ll keep this “case” open and are always willing to hear other opinions, but so far it seems to be a natural occurrence. Thanks to everyone who examined the stone and gave their comments.

Now for a change of pace! Here’s Freak of the Week # 26, submitted by Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History:
Are these Styrofoam Christmas decorations, just drying and waiting to be painted? What are they? Give us your thoughts – and later we’ll provide the answer.

Freak of the Week #26

Freak of the Week #26