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    Why do turkeys have dark and white meat?


     In a turkey the active muscles such as the legs store a lot of oxygen and become dark, while less active muscles like the breast remain white.

Turkeys can fly short distances -- typically from ground to perch -- but they are not known for their sustained flying abilities. They rely on their legs to get them around. The active muscles, such as the legs and thighs, are full of blood vessels. These blood vessels contain myoglobin (or muscle hemoglobin), which delivers oxygen to the muscles. The more myoglobin the muscles contain, the darker the muscle.

Scientists often refer to these active muscles as slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers are built for endurance, which allows the muscles to work for long periods of time. Thus the turkey can run around all day without getting tired.

On the other hand, white meat is the result of well-rested muscles. The breast muscles, which are used for flying, are hardly used by turkeys. There is no need to have a rich supply of oxygen delivered to these muscles. Scientists refer to these types of muscles as fast-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are designed for quick bursts of energy, but they fatigue quickly. In addition, fast twitch muscles are fueled by glycogen (carbohydrate stored in body tissues) giving the muscles that immediate explosion of energy needed to move rapidly.

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Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Davis, Karen. More than a meal: the turkey in history, myth, ritual, and reality. New York, Lantern Books, c2001. 192 p.
  • Grivetti, Louis E., Jan L. Corlett, and Cassius T. Lockett. Food in American history part 2: turkey. Nutrition today, v. 36, Mar. 2001: 88-96.
  • Haseltine, Eric. The body electric: measuring your fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibres. Discover, v. 22, Dec., 2001: 92.
  • Martini, Frederic. Muscle tissue, in Fundamentals of anatomy and physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall, c1998. pg 276-313. (Slow and Fast Fibers, p. 302).
  • McGinty, Brian. The American turkey. Early American life, v. 9, 1978: 24-26, 76-77.
  • Vogel, Steven. Prime mover: a natural history of muscle. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, c2001. 370 p.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "cookery (turkey)," "meat," "muscles," or "turkey" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Photo: two men letting a turkey out of a cardboard box.
Releasing a translocated Wild Turkey into its new home in Everglades National Park. From the NPS Wild Turkey: Species Profile website.


Photo: two wild turkeys, one with wings spread.
Two wild turkeys in Texas. From the USGS Wild Turkey Talk website.


Photo: a white turkey.The Beltsville Small White turkey was bred to have lots of breast meat. From the USDA Agricultural Research Service website.


Cartoon of the body of a turkey but the head of a man and the body of a rooster and the head of a man.
Election cartoon - Whig candidate Winfield Scott & Democrat Franklin Pierce. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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 October 2, 2018
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