Monday, November 24, 2014

Let’s Talk Turkey: 8 Surprising Facts About Turkeys

A wild male turkey struts his stuff.
Photo by Lupin at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Turkeys are all-American. The modern domesticated turkey is descended from the wild turkey of North America, which is essentially a pheasant.

2. Domestic turkeys can’t fly or have sex. Domestic turkeys have been bred to have enormous breast muscles for our dinner tables. Their breast muscles have become so large that these top-heavy birds have lost the ability to fly and even to have sex! Domestic turkey eggs now have to be fertilized by artificial insemination. Wild turkeys with their functionally-sized breast muscles, however, can fly up to 55 mph for short distances and have sex just fine.

3. Male turkeys (called toms) are courtship-machines. Wild turkey males are substantially larger than females, and their 5,000 to 6,000 feathers have red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Like peacocks, male turkeys puff up their bodies and spread their elaborate feathers to attract mates and intimidate rivals. In comparison, female wild turkey feathers are duller shades of brown and grey to better hide from predators. And as if their flashy feathers weren’t enough, toms also have fleshy body appendages called snoods (the fleshy snotsicle that hangs over their beak) and wattles (the thing that looks like a scrotum under their chin). When the male is excited, the snood and wattle fill with blood and turn bright red. Sexy!

4. Turkeys are intelligent animals. They even have the ability to learn the precise details of a 1,000-acre area. And no, turkeys will not drown if they look up into the sky during a rainstorm.

5. Turkeys are social animals. They create lasting social bonds with each other and are very affectionate. Turkeys can produce over 20 different vocalizations, including the distinctive gobble (produced only by males), which can be heard up to a mile away! Individual turkeys have unique voices that they use to recognize each other.

6. Female turkeys (called hens) are good moms. Wild turkey babies (called poults) are precocial, which means that they hatch out of their eggs already covered in fluffy down and able to walk, run and feed themselves. They stick close to their mother for protection from predators, but unlike many other species of bird mothers, she doesn't have to feed them. Although wild turkeys roost in the trees at night to avoid predators, poults are unable to fly for their first few weeks of life. The mother stays with them at ground level to keep them safe and warm until they are strong enough to all roost in the trees with her.

A wild turkey mom and her poults. Photo by Kevin Cole at Wikimedia Commons.

7. Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be America’s national bird. Benjamin Franklin famously argued that the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, should be America's national bird. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, "For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living those among men who live by sharping and 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...For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours...".

8. Turkeys were once endangered. Although millions of wild turkeys used to live across the Americas, they were almost completely wiped out due to a combination of over-hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to strong conservation efforts that included better hunting management, habitat protection, captive breeding, and reintroduction into the wild, wild turkey populations are now healthy and found in all of the lower 48 states.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Animal Biology in Science Fiction: The Color of Distance

Ani and two of her community’s elders are foraging when they stumble upon two seemingly lifeless aliens. They are able to restore one of the aliens to health and what follows is a thought-provoking story of first contact between alien worlds. This is Amy Thompson’s The Color of Distance, a science fiction novel written from perspectives that alternate between Juna (the human “alien” scientist stranded on a foreign planet) and Ani (the Tendu female that found her).

The Color of Distance is a rare science fiction story in that the science focuses on possibilities of ecology and physiology. The Tendu are a sentient species with many physical attributes similar to our own amphibians. They have a deep understanding of the ecology of their planet and they take responsibility for the sustainability of their ecosystems. We learn about their planet’s species and ecological relationships through the eyes and thoughts of Juna, a human scientist that was stranded on a mission to explore the planet. The parallels between the species and ecologies on this fictional planet and Earth are too similar for my critical science brain to believe, but they serve well to foster in us more of an appreciation for the wondrous complexities of our own planet.

The Tendu role as caretakers of their planet’s species is supported by their remarkable physiological abilities. The Tendu have fleshy spurs on their wrists, called allu, that they use to communicate and learn about the animals around them. By sinking their spurs into another animal, the Tendu can learn about that animal’s health, diet, emotional state, reproductive state, and many other attributes. Furthermore, through their allu they can manipulate other animals’ health, monitoring them, healing them, even physically altering them! This is a fun idea, but could this even be remotely possible?

In fact, many species on our own planet already have similar abilities! Many animals produce pheromones, chemical compounds that, when detected by another animal, communicate that animal’s health, diet, emotional state, reproductive state, and many other attributes. Many species (including many mammals and insects) use airborne pheromones, but fish and other aquatic animals can perceive chemicals in the water the same way. It is not much more of a conceptual leap to imagine an animal that can inject a spur into another animal’s body to “taste” chemicals that relate to that animal’s health and emotional state. If that spur were also able to release chemicals and compounds, then this could be a means to influence the receiving animal’s health and emotional state as well.

Thompson’s novel also takes us through the emotional journey of a woman trying to make a life for herself in a new land surrounded by people and customs she doesn’t understand. Her writing regularly left me lost in memories of my days in Peace Corps and will likely resonate with anyone who has spent a significant amount of time living abroad.

If you are looking to curl up with a blanket and a good book, this is a good one! It will get you thinking about physiology, ecology, culture and politics in a whole new way.

Have you read The Color of Distance? Can you recommend another science fiction book that focuses on physiology or behavior? If so, please comment below!

For more animal physiology and behavior in science fiction, go here.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Importance of “Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever”

Photo of Wisconsin State Assembly
Speaker Robin Vos from
at Wikimedia Commons.
In the afterglow of the Republican national sweep in last Tuesday’s elections, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos discussed his agenda for the next legislative session for the state of Wisconsin. Apparently, his agenda includes changes to the state’s support of the public University of Wisconsin System: “[We want] to make sure that people who are in the [University of Wisconsin] System are actually teaching, and they’re not using their time for purposes that don’t directly impact the lives ... of students,” Vos said. “Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on, you know, ancient mating habits of whatever.”

For those of us that teach and do research, statements like these are hurtful and shockingly ignorant in many ways. But the biggest take-home message to me about this comment is how popular and dangerous this sentiment is across the nation because of the scientific community’s failure to communicate the relevance and importance of our work to the general public.

Scientific research takes two major forms: basic research and applied research. If we want “research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy”, we will generally turn to applied research: research that is geared towards solving a specific problem. However, in order to solve our specific problems, we need to have knowledge of how the systems work, what factors influence them and how those factors work. All of this general knowledge is obtained though basic research: research that is geared towards improving our knowledge or understanding without an immediate applied purpose. Applied research would not be possible without the foundation that basic research provides.

Everything we have depends on knowledge gained by past basic research. Many of our farming practices and cancer treatments would not be possible without the discovery of DNA. Medications for mental illnesses and seizures would not exist without continued research on neurotransmitters. The internet and satellite TV would not exist if it were not for support of basic research. Sometimes the potential future applications of basic research are obvious, but most of the time, they are not. Even basic research on the “ancient mating habits of whatever” could provide us with valuable insight on pest controls, agriculture and raising livestock, or even medical treatments. We don’t know exactly where basic research will take us, but we know it will take us forward.

Not only does the knowledge we gain from basic research move us forward, but the very act of conducting the research promotes economic prosperity. For example, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the flagship university in the University of Wisconsin System, brings in approximately $1 billion every year in grants. This money provides jobs for the faculty researchers, their research staff and their graduate students. It provides additional jobs to people that maintain research facilities, care for research animals, and produce research equipment and supplies. The projects provide training and experience for post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates, who would not otherwise be able to compete for the jobs they aspire to. Simply getting good grades in college is not enough to get into graduate school, medical school or veterinary school. Schools and competitive jobs want applicants with experience. These basic research projects provide students with the opportunities to gain this experience under the supervision of an expert (who, by the way, is also a trained teacher). Supporting basic research is a win-win!

The dangerous lack of appreciation for the value of basic research is not just a Wisconsin problem; It is not just a United States problem; It is a global problem. The general public simply does not get enough information about the value of current research to understand why they should care. Let’s change this! Go to the Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever Facebook page and leave a post about basic research that has impacted you. Summarize your research in 140 characters or less and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #AncientMatingHabitsOfWhatever. Write your representative and tell him or her why basic research matters. Because we cannot move forward without it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

War and Peace

A group of Gelada baboons in Ethiopia.
Photo by A. Davey at Wikimedia Commons.
Syria and Iraq. Ukraine. The Gaza Strip. People are dying in large numbers at the hands of other humans, and for what? Land and resources? Is it really worth it? It is often said that humans are the only species so horrific as to kill its own species in war. But the fact is, we are not alone in what was previously thought to be a uniquely human trait. In many animal groups, individuals will band together in collective defense of territory and resources.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about how group size influences the ability of primate groups to hold their territories. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

Willems, E.P. Hellriegel, B. and van Schaik, C.P. The collective action problem in primate territory economics, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 280: 20130081 (2013). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.0081.