Haute cuisine: what mystery meat did the Explorers Club dine on in 1951?

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten? Grubs? Alligator? Kudu? I bet nothing you’ve ever eaten comes close to what was purportedly on the menu at at the 47th Explorers Club Annual Dinner in 1951 — Wooly Mammoth.

Apparently the Explorers Club members have exotic tastes, and their menus are known to include “tarantulas and goat eyeballs”. But MAMMOTH?! They’ve been extinct for thousands of years — why would you want to eat them? Well, after reading the first part of this description, I was convinced that it would be the next Kobe beef:

“One of the first scientific accounts of a well-preserved woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) frozen in Siberia described the meat as enticingly red and marbled”

But before you book your flight for a dinner on Wrangel Island, let’s read the rest of the sentence:

“but smelling so putrid that researchers could only tolerate a minute in its proximity”

So there is no way that wooly mammoth could have been served at the Explorers Club Annual Dinner in 1951. The guests would have certainly noticed it, right? There’s no way  “the Glacier Priest”*, Father Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, and Captain George Francis Kosco actually brought back mammoth meat from Alaska. Well, we finally have an answer.

In a study recently published in PLoS One, Jessica Glass, Matt Davis, and colleagues at Yale decided to find out exactly what they ate that fateful night in 1951. Fortunately, Yale’s Peabody museum has a few pieces of the famed “mammoth meat” in its archives. And to make it more interesting, it wasn’t even labeled as mammoth meat*, rather it was labeled as a long-extinct giant ground sloth, Megatherium. And, if it was giant ground sloth:

“it would expand the latitudinal range of this genus, known only from South America, over 600% and rewrite what paleontologists know about ground sloth evolution”

The mystery meat from the Explorers Club Dinner of 1951. Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum.

To find out what species this was, Glass, Davis, and co. used ancient DNA techniques to extract DNA from the mystery meat and sequence a 308bp portion of the mitochondrial genome. In what is quite possibly the shortest results section ever (5 sentences), the authors report that the sample was not mammoth or giant ground sloth.

It was green sea turtle.

“Crush” the sea turtle from Finding Nemo (Disney). Also on the menu at the Explorers Club Dinner in 1951

Footnotes:

  • If my non-existent hip-hop career ever takes off, this will no doubt be my stage name.

** This rivals the Nespresso machine sludge experiment for best “hm, what could we sequence”-inspired research…

*** Public Service Announcement: Proper labeling of samples and tubes is an important part of science.

REFERENCE

Glass JR, Davis M, Walsh TJ, Sargis EJ, Caccone A (2016) Was Frozen Mammoth or Giant Ground Sloth Served for Dinner at The Explorers Club? PloS one, 11, e0146825. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0146825

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About Noah Snyder-Mackler

I'm a postdoctoral fellow in the department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. Broadly, I study non-human primate genetics and genomics. More specifically, I'm interested in the interaction between behavior, genotype, and gene expression in response to social stress.
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