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Meleagris Californica or the Pre-Historic Californian Turkey

Meleagris Californica, Californian Turkey, La Brea Tar Pits

Fossilized skeleton and artist rendition of Meleagris Californica at La Brea Tar Pit Museum. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

Among the wildlife to greet the first human inhabitants of the Los Angeles area was the Californian turkey (Meleagris californica). It was a turkey species found only in Southern California, believed to have gone extinct about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. It was apparently abundant here, judging from the number of fossils found. It ranged from Orange County, through Los Angeles County, to Santa Barbara County. The La Brea Tar Pits alone, at last report, have collected 11,116 fossil specimens of M. californica, representing at least 791 individual birds. It is one of the most common of 140 bird species found at Rancho La Brea, second only to the Golden Eagle (Aquila crysaetos). Scientists speculate that its extinction may have been due to either climate change or human hunting or, likely, both.

The Californian turkey was a contemporary of other now extinct prehistoric animals that roamed the Los Angeles area, such as the sabre-toothed cat, the giant ground sloth, the dire wolf, and the mammoth and mastodon. Its fossils were first identified at Rancho La Brea (La Brea Tar Pits) by paleontologist-zoologist Loye H. Miller in 1909. He originally described it, however, as a relative of the peacock and then, later, as a new type of intermediary between peacock and turkey. It was only correctly reclassified as related to modern turkeys in 1924. It was, nevertheless, a unique turkey species, apparently isolated by desert and geography from interbreeding with wild turkeys from elsewhere in the continent. Scientists believe its origination in Southern California may have been as far back as 11 million years ago.

See a fully assembled fossil of the skeleton of a Californian turkey (photo above) at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum.

Also see: 12 Things You Should Know About the La Brea Tar Pits