Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sexing Turkeys with Spectroscopy

A new study finds a way to identify the sex of turkey poults before they have developed visible sex differences.
Numerous bird species, nestlings and immature birds in particular, lack external sexual characteristics. Knowledge of a bird's gender is important for poultry breeders, veterinary practitioners, aviculturists and ornithologists. For example, accurate determination of a bird's gender is essential for proper pairing of birds, and knowing the gender of a bird allows veterinarians to diagnose gender-specific diseases. Equally, the poultry industry is interested in fast, objective and inexpensive methods for determining the sex of chickens and turkeys as early as possible -- their interest lying mainly in the egg-producing female.

Dr. Steiner and his team applied infrared spectroscopic imaging to determine the gender of turkey poults. They looked at pulp germ cells extracted from the growing contour feathers of 23 male and 23 female six-week-old turkey poults. This technique provides direct access to the birds' gender as the classification is based on the genetic information contained in the cells. Their method successfully classified female and male poults with an accuracy of more than 95 percent.
Here is the full journal article.

The main application for this research seems to be the poultry industry, which prefers to breed female poultry for egg-laying. The same spectroscopic techniques used to analyze feather pulp could also analyze unhatched but fertilized eggs, as well as distinguish fertilized from unfertilized eggs. The press release describes the research as preventing "millions of male chicks from being killed shortly after birth." The alternative is unstated but presumably means separating out male eggs and discarding them before they hatch.

Beyond the poultry industry, it possible that this technique could be useful for captive breeding programs, though I am not sure such breeders would be as concerned about the sex of a bird before it has hatched. Of course, such programs could use it to avoid wasting time and resources to incubate unfertilized eggs.