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The Philosophy of Despair By David Starr Jordan Characters: 11015

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Probably no genus of birds in the American avifauna has received the amount of attention that has been bestowed upon the turkeys. Ever since the coming to the New World of the very first explorers, who landed in those parts where wild turkeys are to be found, there has been no cessation of verbal narratives, casual notices, and appearance of elegant literature relating to the members of this group. We have not far to seek for the reason for all this, inasmuch as a wild turkey is a very large and unusually handsome bird, commanding the attention of any one who sees it. Its habits, extraordinary behavior, and notes render it still more deserving of consideration; and to all this must be added the fact that wild turkeys are magnificent game birds; the hunting of them peculiarly attractive to the sportsman; while, finally, they are easily domesticated and therefore have a great commercial value everywhere.

The extensive literature on wild and domesticated turkeys is by no means confined to the English language, for we meet with many references to these fowls, together with accounts and descriptions of them, distributed through prints and publications of various kinds, not only in Latin, but in the Scandinavian languages as well as in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and doubtless in others of the Old World. Some of these accounts appeared as long ago as the early part of the sixteenth century, or perhaps even earlier; for it is known that Grijalva discovered Mexico in 1518, and Gomarra and Hernandez, whose writings appeared soon afterward, gave, among their descriptions of the products of that country, not only the wild turkey, but, in the case of the latter writer, referred to the wild as well as to the domesticated form, making the distinction between the two.

In order, however, to render our history of the wild turkeys in America as complete as possible, we must dip into the past many centuries prior to the discovery of the New World by those early navigators. We must go back to the time when it was questionable whether man existed upon this continent at all. In other words, we must examine and describe the material representing our extinct turkeys handed us by the paleontologists, or the fossilized remains of the prehistoric ancestors of the family, of which we have at hand a few fragments of the greatest value. These I shall refer to but briefly for several reasons. In the first place, their technical descriptions have already appeared in several widely known publications, and in the second, what I have here to say about them is in a popular work, and technical descriptions are not altogether in place. Finally, such material as we possess is very meagre in amount indeed, and such parts of it as would in any way interest the general reader can be referred to very briefly.

The fossil remains of a supposed extinct turkey, described by Marsh[1] as Meleagris altus from the Post-pliocene of New Jersey, is, from the literature and notices on the subject, now found to be but a synonym of the Meleagris superba of Cope from the Pleistocene of New Jersey. At the present writing I have before me the type specimen of Meleagris altus of Marsh, for which favor I am indebted to Dr. Charles Schuchert of the Peabody Museum of Yale University. My account of it will be published in another connection later on.

Some years after Professor Marsh had described this material as representing a species to which I have just said he gave the specific name of altus, it would appear that I did not fully concur in the propriety of doing so, as will be seen from a paper I published on the subject about fifteen years ago[2]. This will obviate the necessity of saying anything further in regard to M. superba.

So far as my knowledge carries me, this leaves but two other fossil wild turkeys of this country, both of which have been described by Professor Marsh and generally recognized. These are Meleagris antiqua in 1871, and Meleagris celer in 1872. My comments on both of these species will be found in the American Naturalist for July, 1897, on pages 648, 649.[3]

Plate I

Types: M. antiqua; M. celer. Marsh

Fig. 1. Anconal aspect of the distal extremity of the right humerus of "Meleagris antiquus" of Marsh. Fig. 2. Palmar aspect of the same specimen shown in Fig. 1. Fig. 3. Anterior aspect of the proximal moiety of the left tarso-metatarsus of Meleagris celer of Marsh. Fig. 4. Posterior aspect of the same fragment of bone shown in Fig. 3. Fig. 5. Outer aspect of the same fragment of bone shown in Figs. 3 and 4. All figures natural size. Reproduced from photographs made direct from the specimens by Dr. R. W. Shufeldt.

It will be noted, then, that Meleagris antiqua of Marsh is practically represented by the imperfect distal extremity of a right humerus; and that Meleagris celer of the same paleontologist from the Pleistocene of New Jersey is said to be represented by the bones enumerated in a foregoing footnote. In this connection let it be borne in mind that, while I found fossil specimens of Meleagris g. silvestris in the bone caves of Tennessee, I found no remains of fossil turkeys in Oregon, from whence some classifiers of fossil birds state that M. antiqua came (A. O. U. Check-Listed, 1910, p. 388[4]).

On the 19th of April 1912, I communicated by letter with Dr. George F. Eaton, of the Museum of Yale University, in regard to the fossils described by Marsh of M. antiqua and M. celer, with the view of borrowing

them for examination. Dr. Eaton, with great kindness, at once interested himself in the matter, and wrote me (April 20, 1912) that "We have a wise rule forbidding us to lend type material, but I shall be glad to ask Professor Schuchert to make an exception in your favor." In due time Prof. Charles Schuchert, then curator of the Geological Department of the Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University, wrote me on the subject (May 2, 1912), and with marked courtesy granted the request made of him by Dr. Eaton, and forwarded me the type specimen of Marsh of M. antiqua and M. celer by registered mail. They were received on the 3rd of May, 1912, and I made negatives of the two specimens on the same day. It affords me pleasure to thank both Professor Schuchert and Dr. Eaton here for the unusual privilege I enjoyed, through their assistance, in the loan of these specimens;[5] also Dr. James E. Benedict, Curator of Exhibits of the U. S. National Museum, and Dr. Charles W. Richmond of the Division of Birds of that institution, for their kindness in permitting me to examine and make notes upon a mounted skeleton of a wild turkey (M. g. silvestris) taken by Prof. S. F. Baird at Carlisle, Penn., many years ago. Mr. Newton P. Scudder, librarian of the National Museum, likewise has my sincere thanks for his kindness in placing before me the many volumes on the history of the turkey I was obliged to consult in connection with the preparation of this chapter.

From what has already been set forth above, it is clear that Marsh's specimen (for he attached but scant importance to the other fragments with it), upon which he based "Meleagris antiquus" was not taken in Oregon, but in Colorado.[6] Both of these fossils I have very critically compared with the corresponding parts of the bones represented in each case in the skeleton of an adult wild turkey (Meleagris g. silvestris) in the collection of mounted bird skeletons in the U. S. National Museum.

Taking everything at my command into consideration as set forth above, as well as the extent of Professor Marsh's knowledge of the osteology of existing birds-not heretofore referred to-I am of the opinion, that in the case of his Meleagris antiqua, the material upon which it is based is altogether too fragmentary to pronounce, with anything like certainty, that it ever belonged to a turkey at all. In the first place, it is a very imperfect fragment (Plate 1, Figs. 1 and 2); in the second, it does not typically present the "characteristic portions" of that end of the humerus in a turkey, as Professor Marsh states it does. Thirdly, the distal end of the humerus is by no means a safe fragment of the skeleton of hardly any bird to judge from. Finally, it is questionable whether the genus Meleagris existed at all, as such, at the time the "Miocene clay deposits of northern Colorado" were deposited.

That this fragment may have belonged to the skeleton of some big gallinaceous fowl the size of an adult existing Meleagris-and long ago extinct-I in no way question; but that it was a true turkey, I very much doubt.

Still more uncertain is the fragment representing Meleagris celer of Marsh. (Plate 1, Figs. 3-5.) The tibia mentioned I have not seen, and of them Professor Marsh states that they only "probably belonged to the same individual" (see antea). As to this proximal moiety of the tarso-metatarsus, it is essentially different from the corresponding part of that bone in Meleagris g. silvestris. In it the hypotarsus is twice grooved, longitudinally; whereas in M. g. silvestris there is but a single median groove. In the latter bird there is a conspicuous osseous ridge extending far down the shaft of the bone, it being continued from the internal, thickened border of the hypotarsus. This ridge is only indicated on the fossil bone, having either been broken off or never existed at all. In any event it is not present in the specimen. The general facies of the fossil is quite different from that part of the tarso-metatarsus in an existing wild turkey, and to me it does not seem to have come from the skeleton of the pelvic limb of a meleagrine fowl at all. It may have belonged to a bird of the galline group, not essentially a turkey; while on the other hand it may have been from the skeleton of some large wader, not necessarily related to either the true herons or storks. Some of the herons, for example, (Ardea) have "the hypotarsus of the tarso-metatarsus three-crested, graduated in size, the outer being the smaller; the tendinal grooves pass between them."[7] As just stated, the hypotarsus of the tarso-metatarsus in Meleagris celer of Marsh is three-crested, and the tendinal grooves pass between them. In M. g. silvestris this process is but two-crested and the median groove passes between them.

The sternum of the turkey, if we have it practically complete, is one of the most characteristic bones of the skeleton; but Professor Marsh had no such material to guide him when he pronounced upon his fossil turkeys. Had I made new species, based on the fragments of fossil long bones of all that I have had for examination, quite a numerous little extinct avifauna would have been created.

"It is often a positive detriment to science, in my opinion, to create new species of fossil birds upon the distal ends of long bones, and surely no assistance whatever to those who honestly endeavor to gain some idea of the avian species that really existed during prehistoric times."[8]

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