It’s common knowledge that Tom Turkey can trace his lineage back to The Land Before Time — there’s a veritable cornucopia of evidence supporting the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs.
As we all gather to feast on secret-recipe stuffing, Grandma’s green bean casserole, cranberry sauce (if that’s your thing) and, of course, turkey, let’s take a moment to reflect on what our main course has in common with prehistory’s fiercest predator.
As it turns out, Tyrannosaurus rex and Meleagris gallopavo share a surprising skeletal characteristic: they both have a wishbone.
For many families, the wishbone is at the core of a competitive post-Thanksgiving tradition. After letting it air out for a few days, rival siblings each grip one arm of the wishbone and yank hard. When the wishbone splits, whoever ends up with the larger half is granted one unspoken wish.
What is a wishbone, exactly?
Known more formerly as the furcula, the wishbone is a flexible v-shaped bone that fuses the collarbones at the sternum. For birds, the wishbone is critical to flight: it acts as a spring that stores and releases energy generated by contractions in the breast muscles during flapping.
T. rex never went airborne — however, it did rely on its wishbone for structural support while gripping prey in those teensy-weensy arms.
And it wasn’t just King T who had a wishbone; many other dinos did, too! Let’s break it down.
Birds descend from a group of dinosaurs called theropods (from Greek meaning “beast feet”). T. rex belongs to a theropod subcategory known as coelurosaurs (“hollow-tailed lizards”), of which the Velociraptor — a vicious carnivore with scythe-like claws who likely hunted in packs (remember Jurassic Park?) — is another famous member.
In addition to the wishbone, dinosaurs in the coelurosaur clade have many physical traits in common with the modern day bird, such as:
• Bipedal stance
• Air-filled bones
• Hinge ankle joints
• 3-fingered hands
• Swiveled wrist-bones that rotate sideways (instead of flexing and extending like a human wrist)
Yes! Feathers! It’s now known that most coelurosaurs, including T. rex, had feathers or protofeathers (also adorably known as “dinofuzz“). Their main function would have been temperature regulation, though — not flight.
Flight feathers are a more advanced form of feather that is thought to have developed around 150 million years ago, in the late Jurassic period. They’ve been found in extremely well-preserved fossils of Archaeopteryx, a coelurosaur that since the late 19th century has been generally accepted by paleontologists as the FIRST. BIRD. EVER.
Turkeys today have flight feathers, but your typical pen-raised Thanksgiving turkey lives up to its “Butterball” name — it’s far too plump and breast-heavy to fly. Wild turkeys, however, soar up to roost in trees at night. Some accounts clock them at 55 MPH (in short bursts). For reference, T. rex ran 18 MPH on average — about as fast as a polar bear today.
This month, we learned that the tender bird we smother in gravy every Thanksgiving actually has a rather rich and respectable lineage. We hope that you’ll remember it next time you’re vying for the bigger piece of furcula!