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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An Alien Intelligence: Turkeys

Wild turkeys are a wonderful example of genetic and memetic evolution.    Imprinting of a parental voice and vocalization begins before hatching. The display by males to communicate dominance is observed in young poults less than a week old.  Wild turkeys have distinctive vocalizations for distress, reassurance and even identification of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes.  Their vocalizations serve to network data about their environment, providing information which increases individual survival within the group.  This is especially vital to the survival of the species during the crucial stages of development, before reproduction, when an individual brain does not have enough experience and memory to navigate the environment on its own. 

In the first couple weeks, turkeys rely on the mother completely for protection.  They play and explore the environment close to the mother.  As they become larger, caution decreases and curiosity increases and they learn about their environment through networked, coordinated behavior as well as individual experience.  This activity appears to be completely dependent on the genes. 

Turkeys do not have language as humans do.  Instead, they have a set of memes directly created by the environmental selection of genes.  These memes trigger chemical cascades in their brains and bodies.  Alert calls create excited behavior, the flight/fight response and close physical proximity to family members.  Roosting calls trigger relaxation, allowing all brains in the network to power down in a synchronized fashion.  These roosting calls may be triggered by a change in light frequency as the sun sets or other environmental cues.  The genes and memes are closely tied to the environment because selective pressure demands efficiency.  Pain and other stimuli elicit vocalizations which trigger chemical cascades in others, facilitating survival.

This is instinctive knowledge, grafted onto emotional (chemical) and physical internal networks.  For a fascinating encounter with this alien intelligence, check out My Life As A Turkey, the story of Joe Hutto's study of the wild turkey in its natural habitat.

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