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  • Besides turkeys, what species first domesticated in the New World has an Old World place name?

    Posted on November 26th, 2010 admin No comments

    One last Thanksgiving-related question, since Friday is still a holiday for some of us.

    There are two correct answers to this, but only one was mentioned by Twitter correspondents.  The first correct answer was from @little_mavis: The guinea pig is a species domesticated in the New World but given an Old World name.

    Guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) are called “pigs” (commonly and scientifically) because of their pig-like build and the pig-like sounds they make.  They were first domesticated in mountainous regions of northwestern South America.  Why they are called “guinea” pigs is a matter of conjecture, and may be a combination of several factors.  One hypothesis is that “guinea” is a corruption of Guiana, though they’re not originally from there, either.  Another guess is that “guinea” pigs may have been imported to Europe via Guinea (West Africa) and so been named for the wrong place.

    The misnaming of the “guinea” pig may simply be similar to the misnaming of the turkey.  It may have been intentionally named for an exotic-sounding place, even though that place is not where the animal actually came from.

    A third species first domesticated in the New World and given a misplaced name is the muscovy duck (Cairina moschata).  It’s not from Muscovy, but from northern South America and possibly Central America.

    The muscovy duck is the only breed of domestic duck not descended from the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  Most domestic ducks are descended entirely from the mallard, but a few from hybrids of mallard and other Anas species.  In fact, transgeneric hybrids of muscovy ducks and mallard-derived ducks can be bred, but the hybrids can not reproduce.  They are often raised for meat because they grow quickly, like mallard-descended domestic ducks, but grow to be larger, like the slower-growing muscovy duck.

    The muscovy duck may have derived its name from incorrect association with Muscovy (the duchy that includes Moscow), or from their musky odor.  The scientific name Cairina moschata means “musky one from Cairo,” but the muscovy duck is not from Cairo, either.

    More about New world domesticates with Old World names:

  • What human disease was caused by the rapid spread of corn throughout the world in 18th century?

    Posted on November 24th, 2010 admin No comments

    First correct answer was from @mlv: Pellagra is a niacin deficiency disease caused by rapid spread of corn-based diet.

    Pellagra, a niacin deficiency, was caused by the rapid spread of a corn-based diet and by improper preparation of the corn.  Traditional preparation of corn included soaking in alkali.  This released the niacin and prevented pellagra.  When Europeans spread corn from the Americas to other parts of the world, and it became a staple of many impoverished populations, they failed to spread the cultural traditions that made the corn a properly nutritious staple food.

    Note that pellagra is not caused by corn in the diet, but is not prevented by a nearly exclusive diet of corn.  It’s a matter of balance.  Anyone can certainly eat corn without fear of niacin deficiency, but if their diet includes no other significant source of niacin, they may be in trouble.

    Modern strains of corn have been selected to make niacin more accesible to digestion without alkali processing.

    Pellagra is still a problem in some refugee populations where corn is provided as an unfamiliar new staple food.

    More about pellagra:

  • What is the fleshy protuberance above a turkey’s beak called? (Not the wattle, which is below.)

    Posted on November 23rd, 2010 admin No comments

    First correct answer was from @arachne182:  The fleshy protuberance above a turkey’s beak is called the snood.

    Many galliformes (grouse/quail/pheasant family) have elaborate head decorations, but the snood is probably unique to the turkeys.  Both male and female turkeys have snoods and other head decorations (wattles and caruncles), but all of these decorations are larger and more colorful in the males.

    Turkeys can raise and lower the snood at will, but it serves no function other than display.

    More about turkeys:

  • What plant-based component of traditional North American Thanksgiving feast is named for a bird?

    Posted on November 22nd, 2010 admin No comments

    First correct answer was from @ilrokery:  The cranberry is a traditional Thanksgiving food that was named for a bird (originally “crane berry”).

    The cranberry was so named for the resemblance of its flowers to a crane’s courtship display.  The cranberry’s petals curve far backward, exposing the anthers and stigma, like the outstretched neck and backard-pointing wings of a courting crane.

    The cranberry is native throughout high latitudes of the Norhtern Hemisphere, but was first used as food in the Americas.  As a food introduced to the English by the Indians, cranberries (usually as sauce) became part of the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast.  After the Indians introduced them to cranberries, Europeans began harvesting them in the Old World as well.

    More about cranberries: