Talking Turkey and How To Pick The Correct "-ologist"

In 2007, we wrote in Thanksgiving - all Things Ottoman, about the origins of the turkey, as well as some other Thanksgiving day staples, many of which were thought mistakenly to originate in the country of Turkey.

You've Come So Far, Turkey

The ancestor to our domesticated turkeys was thought to be a wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo, domesticated in Mexico then brought to Europe, as we wrote in a post about the historical confusion about the turkey's origins:

"The Spaniards fancied the turkey when they invaded Mexico where turkey was indigenous, and then introduced the bird to Europe when they returned in the early 1500's. However, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, turkeys were thought by northern Europeans to be a product of Turkey..."

The great thing about science is it's always moving on. Research forever advances as new technology is developed or because scientists think of new experiments to test ideas and previous research.

Wild Turkey Eastern US
via Wikimedia Commons, used with permission, Creative Commons.

Since 2005, research has significantly advanced our knowledge of turkeys. In 2010, scientists finished sequencing the turkey genome. Turkey is the second most important agricultural fowl, the chicken is the first, so sequence data provides information for researchers to learn more about both the origins of the turkey as well as information to improve breeding and production. For instance scientists have compared the turkey genome to the chicken genome, the two shared an ancestor 40 million years ago and have analyzed and compared today's domesticated turkeys with various fowl and ancient turkeys (including ones from museums).

This year scientists ventured out for other interesting turkey research. Archaeologists unearthed evidence they published in PLoSONE, describing (perhaps) domesticated turkey remains at a Mayan site in Guatemala that date back to 300BC-AD100, almost 1000 years before the turkey was known to be being raised in captivity in Mexico. Although their evidence needs bolstering because it's based on scant DNA samples, they also hypothesized that this new research pointed to possible turkey trade between the two places.

Wild or Mexican? Turkey Talk

I found this papers comments at PLoSONE interesting. Whereas most scientific journals depend on peer-review prior to publication, this particular PLoS journal research depends more on post-publication peer-review. Comments are theoretically key to evaluating the paper in PLoSONE, then, an interesting twist that many people are unaware of. For this paper, one commenter takes issue with a common name the authors give to the turkey Meleagris gallopavo - "Mexican Turkey". It's "not and never has been" called a "Mexican Turkey" he writes, it's called a "Wild Turkey". It's "misleading and incorrect", he says. The researcher is an ornithologist.

The lead author of the paper writes back. We chose to call the bird a "Mexican Turkey" to designate that it was a Mexican bird found in Guatemala, they say. They point out that they were archaeologists, they'd conferred with other archaeologists, and archaeologists were their "primary audience".

The first author writes back again, chastising the paper author for "inventing your own English-language" name for a species, a name that is "inherently confusing and could be interpreted as somewhat disrespectful to the ornithological community". Not only that, he writes, there are other species of turkeys indigenous to Mexico that could also confusingly be called "Mexican Turkeys."

The paper's lead author writes back again: "I am an archaeologist, not an ornithologist", she writes, and re-explains her position, including that they consistently used the Latin names also, so readers shouldn't be confused.

I found this fascinating for several reasons. One, it was great to see the journal's goal for discussion being fulfilled - so many papers go without comment. More discussion about other aspects of the paper would have been even more interesting.

But since I'm not an expert in either ornithology or an archaeology, which expert we should believe, the ornithology expert or the archaeology expert? PLoSONE is by design not a journal for a specialist or expert audience, in fact isn't it just the opposite? So how is the average reader to know? Sure there are good ways to work through this issue if a) you read the comments in the first place and b) needed to write something as a journalist, say, but I venture that excludes a good number of readers.

This is an incredibly common and general problem, that of conflicting expertise, therefore it's important to keep in mind, with which expert do you choose to confer? Which expert ("expert") do you choose to believe? How do you know?

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