Last November, Binghamton Unversity-SUNY’s WHRW station shared this message as part of their program ‘Broadcasting World Literature’: “Today, since it’s Thanksgiving week, I thought it would be good to start off with a reading or just do a reading of a native scholar’s take on giving thanks.” Daimys Garcia explains before she begins reading from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Brading Sweetgrass,“It’s important to remember that Thanksgiving has history that’s rooted in genocide, colonization, and oppression of native peoples on this land so I thought it’d be great to read a piece by a native scholar who is thinking about thanksgiving not as the holiday but in the act of giving thanks.” Garcia’s reading of the chapter ‘Allegiance to Gratitude’ is so beautiful — I cannot recommend listening to this episode of ‘Broadcasting World Literature’ enough. I echo Garcia’s sentiments that in Thanksgiving week, and Native American Heritage Month, we remember the history of this landscape, the indigenous people who were here and live here still, and the food that we’ve done our best to re-brand as thoroughly Americanized.
Whether your preparations for Thanksgiving break involve long lists of ingredients for baking marathons, hamstring stretches for turkey trots, or stacks of lab reports for grade-a-thons, somehow we have arrived in late November. I pulled together a list of on-theme academic papers to keep your cocktail hour anecdotes accurate and your sidebars over the side dishes peer-reviewed. Here is a totally non-thorough, mostly-ecological literature review of turkeys (and the extinct poultry you might expect on a more or less accurate Thanksgiving spread), cranberries, sweet potatoes, and…ptarmigan.
But — before you dig into this feast of a reading list, remember Rule 7: Respect working hours, public holidays, and vacations. This is from the recent PLoS Computational Biology paper, Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. “Working rules commonly in place in labs around the world often mean that academics work all day long, on weekends, and even during holidays,” the author, Dr. Fernando Maestre, writes. “The stress associated with this excessive work without a life outside the lab is one of the main reasons behind the increase in mental problems in academia, particularly among early career researchers and young PIs.” You, my friend, are ahead of the game. Relaxing with a little blog reading before Thanksgiving and making excellent life choices. Well done!
First, Americans check out turkeys on Wikipedia in November in alarming numbers. Dr. John Mittermeier and coauthors report that “pageviews for wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo show a seasonal peak in the spring and a sharp peak during the Thanksgiving holiday in the US.” This idea — that Americans are reading up on Thanksgiving turkeys year after year — was part of the inspiration behind Mittermeier’s PLOS Biology paper A season for all things: Phenological imprints in Wikipedia usage and their relevance to conservation. If you aren’t convinced of the cultural relevance of turkeys, or question how much Americans love to look up turkeys on the internet, consider the fact that a recent PNAS paper, Characterizing the cultural niches of North American birds, had to treat google searches of turkeys as an outlier. In the Methods, they report, “After assembling estimates of relative interest for all 622 species, we normalized values so that bald eagle, the second most popular search topic, was assigned a value of 100, and all other taxa were assigned values proportionally. Wild turkey was the focus of more interest than bald eagle, but we considered the species an outlier (i.e., it received more than an order of magnitude more searches than bald eagle) and did not include it in our core analyses.”
This turkey obsession is interesting in part because it begs the question, what are we learning from Wikipedia? I recently found this tidbit on the Wikipedia page for heath hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) “Heath hens were extremely common in their habitat during Colonial times, but being a gallinaceous bird, they were hunted by settlers extensively for food. In fact, many have speculated that the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner featured heath hens and not wild turkey.” Here’s the deal though: heath hens were about two pounds. The last population of heath hens lived (& died) on Martha’s Vineyard. I as wrote last month, I have a long-buried ecological connection to Cape Cod and its offshore islands, so while most college kids bring the emotional baggage of Pysch 101 to the Thanksgiving table, I was the know-it-all who threw down random historical ecological nuggets such as, it is unlikely that heath hens or their grassland habitats were as common in early colonial Massachusetts as some historical sources would have you believe. The story that servants refused to eat them multiple times a week is probably apocryphal. You see, I had read Interpreting and conserving the openland habitats of coastal New England: insights from landscape history in Forest Ecology and Management and — this was likely more influential since I was legitimately bad at reading papers until late in grad school — taken a seminar with the author Dr. David Foster. The paleoecological evidence does not support extensive openland vegetation in coastal New England until after European arrival. The landscape was mostly forest, and according to the preeminent expert on heath hens (here Foster and Motzkin throw in a wonderful citation from a 1928 Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History, definitely going in my #ToReadPile), the birds actually preferred, “open sandy woods and scrub oak barrens rather than grassland.” I love roping my family into this kind of argument and I am a lot of fun at parties.
But back to turkeys — I found two more great turkey papers when I searched through my records in Papers (my reference software of choice). I was a bit confused when the results included a 1943 paper in The Condor titled, “Birds Observed between Point Barrow and Herschel Island on the Arctic Coast of Alaska.” It turns out that the author, Dr. Joseph S. Dixon, was comparing male ptarmigans to turkeys: “Ptarmigan were a most important food item after a winter of fresh meat starvation. By May 13, 1914, at Humphrey Point, the males were in full breeding plumage. They cackled and strutted about like diminutive turkey gobblers. From far and near their calls were heard over the snowy plain between the sea coast and the foothills.”
If you want to go on a fascinating deep dive into the history of turkey husbandry before European settlers arrived to kick off a genocide, barely survive a winter, and two hundred years later get a national holiday declared during the Civil War, I recommend Dr. Erin Kennedy Thornton’s 2012 PLoS ONE paper Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication. Thornton and her coauthors leverage archaeological, zooarchaeological, and ancient DNA evidence to confirm that Mayans in present-day Guatamala were raising domesticated turkeys. These turkey remains were discovered well south of the natural geographic range of the Mexican turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, which is the wild progenitor of what we know today the turkey on the Wikipedia page we check out every November — indicating that northern Mesoamerica and Maya cultural regions were engaged in animal trade as early as 300 BC–AD 100. They write, “prior information on Preclassic exchange comes primarily from non-perishable goods such as obsidian and ceramics so the non-local turkeys at El Mirador also expand our understanding of the types of goods that were exchanged long distances during this early period of Maya history.” Traveling long distances for turkey dinner is not a new idea. Mayan culture was holding it down well before the Spanish arrived and they didn’t even need to refer to a Wikipedia page each fall to get it done.
If you are looking for a paper to pair with your ancient turkeys, consider Historical collections reveal patterns of diffusion of sweet potato in Oceania obscured by modern plant movements and recombination. In this 2013 PNAS paper, Dr. Caroline Roullier and her coauthors assessed genetic diversity in modern and herbarium samples of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and confirmed that well before Columbus’ time, Polynesian and South American peoples were sharing sweet potatoes. I love the subsection, “Did Genes and Names Disperse Together?” and the idea that linguistics is a kind of sleeper science — that names can keep information even while recombined genotypes and colonialism obscure the data. This is another powerful story of culture and food enduring; the spread on our dinner table for a celebration of settler colonialism can also be a story of resistance and resilience.
Don’t forget the cranberry sauce! It’s mountain cranberry actually, since I’m an alpine ecologist. Mountain cranberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea, is the berry behind the beloved Ikea treat, lingonberry preserves. According to a 2017 study in Biological Conservation by McDonough MacKenzie et al. (yes, that’s me), volunteers struggle to identify mountain cranberry in a citizen science project recording flowering phenology above treeline. If you want to brush up on your plant ID skills before you hit the dinner table this year, check out the supplementary materials from Lessons from Citizen Science: Assessing volunteer-collected plant phenology data with Mountain Watch — it’s a page of photos of alpine plant species and their look-alikes. Honestly, if you have a laminator lying around this could be a really beautiful Thanksgiving placemat*. Do you think google scholar counts placemats towards your h-index?
One last Thanksgiving resource. If you are struggling with how to talk to your family about climate change, Katharine Hayhoe has a webinar for you. Seriously, let’s talk about climate change. This is tougher than checking out the wikipedia page for turkeys, but definitely a more meaningful discussion than the twenty-two-year-old at the table trying to school you about a heath hen you have never heard of and never claimed to be at the first thanksgiving anyway. Man, I am so much fun at parties.
Banner photo: Mike MacKenzie, turkeys in Cambridge, MA.
Dixon, J. S. (1943). Birds Observed between Point Barrow and Herschel Island on the Arctic Coast of Alaska. The Condor, 45(2), 49–57. http://doi.org/10.2307/1364377
Foster, D. R., & Motzkin, G. (2003). Interpreting and conserving the openland habitats of coastal New England: insights from landscape history. Forest Ecology and Management, 185(1-2), 127–150. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0378-1127(03)00251-2
Garcia, Daimys, “Episode 9: Rethinking Thanksgiving: A Reading of “Allegiance to Gratitude” by Robin Wall Kimmerer” (2018). Broadcasting World Literature. 9.
Maestre, F. T. (2019). Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. PLOS Computational Biology, 15(4), e1006914–8. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006914
McDonough MacKenzie, Caitlin, Georgia Murray, Richard Primack, and Doug Weihrauch. 2017. Lessons from Citizen Science: Assessing volunteer-collected plant phenology data with Mountain Watch. Biological Conservation, 208, 121-126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.07.027
Mittermeier, J. C., Roll, U., Matthews, T. J., & Grenyer, R. (2019). A season for all things: Phenological imprints in Wikipedia usage and their relevance to conservation. PLOS Biology, 17(3), e3000146–12. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000146
Roullier, C., Benoit, L., the, D. M. P. O., 2013. Historical collections reveal patterns of diffusion of sweet potato in Oceania obscured by modern plant movements and recombination. PNAS. http://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.77148
Schuetz, J. G., & Johnston, A. (2019). Characterizing the cultural niches of North American birds. PNAS, 205, 201820670–6. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1820670116
Thornton, E. K., Emery, K. F., Steadman, D. W., Speller, C., Matheny, R., & Yang, D. (2012). Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication. PloS One, 7(8), e42630–8. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0042630
*In putting together this post, I found an error in my supplementary materials! If you can find this mistake on your placemat, send me an email and I’ll reward you with a Plant Love Stories sticker!