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Despite Their Giant Breasts, Messed-Up Modern Turkeys Can't Mate

The farm-bred modern super-turkey is a delicious Frankenstein, an oversized man-made beast.
November 23, 2011, 2:00pm

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for two reasons: First, the inevitable family theater that entertains me every year, without fail – three acts with an hors d'oeuvre of early evening kitchen disagreements, an entrée of hours of yelling with stuffed mouths, and concluding with some drunken catharsis pie. Second, the food. There's something undeniably special about a huge slab of white turkey breast meat covered in a heap of gravy-soaked stuffing.


Speaking of "huge slabs," it's always striking how goddamn big the birds are. When you see a wild turkey on the side of the road, it's chick-sized compared to the mythical Roc that hangs in the grocery store and eventually comes out of the oven. How do they do it?

Contrary to popular belief, they are not injected with any growth hormones. Turkey farmers once used a hormone called diethylstilbestrol, which helped increase the general size of turkeys, and specifically the breast muscles. Diethylstilbestrol was eventually connected to a veritable smorgasbord of cancers and birth defects. Now, they make super-turkeys using the ancient human method of genetically-altering our food called selective breeding.

Like many applications of artificial selection (i.e. selective breeding, or how we produce a warped creature like the poodle), traits that are obviously bad for biological fitness are often favored for human reasons. Super turkeys are bred to be so well-endowed in the breast region (the home of that delicious white meat) that they can't walk straight, or balance. Most devastating to their natural evolutionary fitness, they’re too big to mate. That's right, super turkeys are so morbidly obese that they can't fit their baby-turkey-making parts together. To keep the circle of (artificially-skewed) life rolling on, the females have to be artificially inseminated.

Of course, selective breeding is everywhere – It has given us the fast-growing and disease-resistant farm staples of human agriculture, the meaty pigs, chickens, and cows we eat. Most recognizably, artificial selection has produced our dogs, from huskies to those that can fit in tiny handbags. Artificial insemination is common too, as it is an important tool for selective breeding because it helps eliminates any unplanned funny business. However, in the case of breeding large-breasted super turkeys, artificial insemination is a necessity because of the aforementioned sexual complications of a bloated breast.

Some claim that super turkeys don't taste as good as more "wild" breeds, and a new industry of heritage turkeys has popped up. Questions of taste, along with the ethical issues of large-scale turkey farming and selective mating, have increased the demand for the comparably graceful heritage turkeys, the pure-breds of the turkey world.

So, apology for affecting your appetite aside, be thankful for this: On Thursday you will likely be eating an animal that is so genetically messed up that it could not possibly pass on its genes without the help of, quite literally, a human hand. The modern super turkey is a delicious Frankenstein, an oversized man-made beast, and it represents ages of human ingenuity and staggering Western consumption. Happy Thanksgiving!

h/t Photo via Ohio Barns.