Attractive Male Turkeys Don't Have Better Genes, They're Just Better At Expressing Themselves [STUDY]

By Josh Lieberman on August 16, 2013 7:00 PM EDT

turkey
A new study finds that female turkeys are attracted to males who express masculine-associated genes while downplaying female-associated genes. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A new study into the surprisingly-interesting world of wild turkey mating rituals found that females are attracted to certain males not necessarily because of good genes, but because these males express their good genes better than other similar-looking males.

Male wild turkeys come in two categories: dominant and subordinate. During the winter before reaching sexual maturity, a male turkey fights with his brothers to determine who will be the dominant bird. The winner gets to woo females, while his subordinate brothers help him find the right girl (the subordinate doesn't mate). In a ritual called "cooperative courtship," both dominant and subordinate turkeys will present themselves to a female by fanning their tails. As the dominant turkey serenades a female by strutting and emitting a call, the subordinate brother will chase away other male suitors or even remain in tail-fanning mode "like a back-up singer." (Here's a video of the ritual in action, in case you're thinking of attempting this pick-up technique.)

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In the wild turkey study, published in PLoS Genetics, scientists wanted to get to the bottom of why male turkeys are more attractive than their brothers when they share such similar DNA. The scientists explored the idea of "gene expression"--not just having good genes, but how genes are expressed in an organism.

The researchers sequenced the RNA of seven wild turkey males (five of which were dominant) and five breeding-age females. The researchers found that dominant males expressed higher levels of male-associated genes, while at the same time expressing lower levels of female-associated genes. Female turkeys were the reverse, and subordinate males were a mix. Essentially, the ladies like a manly turkey.

"Sexual attractiveness varies markedly between individuals of the same sex. These differences can have a significant impact on how successful an individual is with the opposite sex," said Judith Mank, University College London's Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment and senior author of the paper. "Here, we have shown that male beauty is a result of how you use your genes, rather than the difference in the genes themselves."

Why certain genes are expressed in certain turkeys, and not in other turkeys with similar DNA, though, is not something the researchers discovered.

Mank speculated that her findings may apply to human sexuality.

"When we think about sex differences, we usually think of two forms," Mank said. "In reality there's more of a spectrum."

Mank plans to research female turkey gene expressions further next.

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