Corn­husker gob­bler ge­net­ics

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY BRAD FITZ­PATRICK

YOU CAN KILL THREE OF THE FOUR SUBSPECIES OF WILD TURKEYS IN NEBRASKA. BUT DNA STUD­IES CAST DOUBT ON THE GE­NETIC PU­RITY OF THE STATE’S TURKEY FLOCK ▶ THE WILD TURKEY’S re­turn to Nebraska is one of hunter-based con­ser­va­tion’s great suc­cess sto­ries. Six decades ago, there were no turkeys in Nebraska. Now Nebraska’s turkey flock is a puz­zle for sci­en­tists. The rein­tro­duc­tion of wild birds to Nebraska—many of which had mixed with do­mes­tic birds—has cre­ated a ge­netic ta­pes­try re­searchers are only just be­gin­ning to un­ravel. Many trav­el­ing hunters know that you can kill a Mer­riam’s, Rio Grande, and Eastern gob­bler in Nebraska. But how pure are those subspecies?

The first doc­u­mented re­lease of wild turkeys in Nebraska oc­curred in 1959, when 28 Mer­riam’s birds were translo­cated to Pine Ridge in the north­west­ern por­tion of the state. Al­though the Mer­riam’s subspecies was not be­lieved to have been pre­vi­ously present in Nebraska, that flock flour­ished and quickly ex­panded their range into south­east­ern Wy­oming and South Dakota. Two years later, 518 Rio Grande/do­mes­tic hy­brid birds were re­leased in the ri­par­ian forests in the cen­tral and south-cen­tral por­tions of Nebraska deemed suit­able turkey habi­tat. That re­lease was much less suc­cess­ful, and in many ar­eas, the ef­forts failed com­pletely.

The suc­cess of the Pine Ridge Mer­riam’s flock prompted bi­ol­o­gists to trans­plant some of those birds for re­lease in other por­tions of the state, where they con­tin­ued to ex­pand their range and hy­bridize. In the south­east­ern por­tion of the state, the re­main­ing Rio Grande birds from the 1961-62 re­lease col­o­nized suit­able habi­tat, and the re­lease of Eastern wild turkeys in the ex­treme south­east­ern cor­ner of the state fur­ther tan­gled the branches of Nebraska’s wild-turkey fam­ily tree.

IDEN­TI­FY­ING NEBRASKA’S BIRDS

Many turkey hunters don’t care which subspecies they’re af­ter, so long as they gob­ble and strut. But two groups in par­tic­u­lar have a vested in­ter­est in the DNA of Corn­husker turkeys. One is hunters seek­ing a Grand Slam, rec­og­nized by the Na­tional Wild Turkey Fed­er­a­tion. A Grand Slam re­quires one of each of the four ma­jor U.S. subspecies of wild turkey (Osce­ola, Rio Grande, Eastern, and Mer­riam’s).

The other group is a team of sci­en­tists from the Nebraska Game and Parks Com­mis­sion and the Univer­sity of Nebraska at Lin­coln. Us­ing

DNA anal­y­sis, th­ese bi­ol­o­gists are un­rav­el­ing the ge­netic com­po­si­tion of turkeys across the state. This re­search has the po­ten­tial to ex­plain which subspecies of turkeys have been most suc­cess­ful, how cer­tain subspecies have adapted to vary­ing habi­tats across from the Sand­hills to the agri­cul­tural ar­eas, and whether hy­bridiza­tion of wild birds with do­mes­tic turkeys has af­fected sur­vival rates.

A COM­PLEX LINEAGE

Dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween turkey subspecies is a com­pli­cated mat­ter, even when DNA is an­a­lyzed. Es­sen­tially, a wild turkey is a wild turkey, and even mor­pho­log­i­cally iden­ti­fied subspecies like the Rio Grande and Mer­riam’s birds share so much of their DNA that they are al­most ge­net­i­cally iden­ti­cal.

The ge­netic test­ing to date is con­sis­tent with the his­tor­i­cal record that, over time, bird pop­u­la­tions have in­ter­min­gled and mud­died the ge­net­ics.

Ev­i­dence shows that turkeys in the west­ern por­tion of the state ex­hibit traits from west­ern turkeys (in­clud­ing both Rio Gran­des and Mer­riam’s), and birds in the

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