The year is 1951. Skirts are full, Nat King Cole tops the charts and Holden Caulfield is still six months away from captivating disenchanted teenagers across America. On a mid-January evening in Manhattan that year, members of the famed Explorers Club gathered in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel for their 47th Annual Dinner, at which — rumor has it — they were served woolly mammoth meat. But Yale researchers have finally proven the story of eating woolly mammoth meat untrue.
The Explorers Club had, and continues to have, a reputation for serving what might be termed adventurous cuisine at their dinner every year: in 2012 they dished up python patties, herb roasted kangaroo and rice wine pickled duck tongue, according to the magazine Popular Science. Accordingly, the belief that the 47th dinner included mammoth endured within the club, and eventually spread to the public conscience, said Matt Davis GRD ’16, a student member of the Explorers Club.
“It’s just something that’s kind of floating around the Internet or in legend, and a lot of times the details have gotten a little muddled up,” Davis said. “But I think everyone kind of had this understanding that at some time in the past, a group of explorers had eaten woolly mammoth.”
The Explorers Club, an international society of scientists, journalists and explorers, was founded in 1904 to promote research and the advancement of “the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore,” according to the club’s website. Its members have included Edmund Hillary — the first man to summit Mount Everest — astronaut Neil Armstrong and Swiss cartographer Jacques Piccard.
As the story goes, club member and then-curator of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut Paul Howes knew in 1951 he would be unable to attend the dinner, but had no intention of missing out on his chance at tasting what he thought was mastodon. According to The Atlantic, Howes wrote to the club that he would send in a check for the price of his meal, along with a bottle of preservative in which he hoped someone might send him back his share of the meat for exhibition at the Bruce Museum.
Somehow, according to Davis, Howes’ sample ended up in a batch transfer of specimens from the Bruce Museum that arrived at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in 2001. It was not labeled as mastodon or mammoth, but instead as Megatherium, an extinct variety of South American giant ground sloth, according to Jessica Glass ’10 GRD ’20.
“On the label itself, it said, ‘This was cooked, eaten and served at an Explorers Club event in 1951,’” Glass noted. “But it never really did anything. It was just kind of sitting on the shelf back there.”
As an undergraduate, Glass worked in the Peabody’s Vertebrate Zoology Department, so she has known of and been fascinated by the existence of the specimen since 2007, she said.
Davis said that one day at lunch in 2014, anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology professor Eric Sargis mentioned to Glass, his student in a mammalogy class that was learning about sloths, and Davis, his teaching fellow, that Yale had a sample of sloth meat eaten by the Explorers Club, should anyone want to study it. Sargis noted that he was skeptical that the specimen was Megatherium, given that it supposedly came from Akutan Island in Alaska, which would be a huge range extension for a South American ground sloth.
Glass said she leapt at the chance to study the specimen.
Davis was aware of the story of the 1951 dinner and was immediately intrigued by the prospect of studying the sample, as he had always heard that the meat served was mammoth, not sloth, he said.
“There was definitely a mystery already,” Davis said.
The pair was at first skeptical of the possibility of extracting usable DNA from the specimen, considering it had been cooked and was over 60 years old, Glass said.
Davis and Glass received a grant from the Explorers Club for the study, and after that spent nights and weekends in the lab. Adalgisa Caccone, the director of Yale’s Molecular Systematics and Conservation Genetics Center at the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, and one of her assistants instructed Glass in techniques for the recovery of ancient DNA, while Davis began archival research with the Explorers Club, Glass said.
In the Environmental Science Center, there is a “tiny room” for ancient DNA studies, Glass said. Before entering it, scientists are not allowed to walk through the other labs in the building in case they are contaminated by modern DNA. There, Glass took chunks of meat, removing samples from the center to avoid all possible contamination, trying to find uncontaminated DNA, she said.
“The problem was that it was very diluted,” Glass said. “What I ended up doing was combining five different samples into two, essentially, to try to concentrate the DNA.”
After obtaining a usable DNA sample, the team worked from January to April 2015 to sequence a mitochondrial gene, Glass said, taking “the quick and easy, cheapest route.” This route took four months because, according to Glass, the scientists did not know what primer — a strand of nucleic acid sequences that serves as a starting point for DNA — to use for DNA sequencing, since they did not know what animal the sample actually came from. They decided to employ a generic primer often used for ancient vertebrate mammals, like a woolly mammoth or giant sloth, Glass said.
After finding a usable sequence, the team entered it into GenBank, a genetic sequence database that compares a sample to its collection of all publicly available DNA sequences.
A sequence popped up. It was not woolly mammoth. It was not mastodon. It was not even Megatherium. It was green sea turtle, Glass said.
The team was not entirely surprised. Glass said that during Davis’ research, he had come across letters from Wendell Phillips Dodge, the organizer of the famous 1951 dinner, to Howes. When he sent Howes the meat, Dodge filled out the specimen label that it was Megatherium. However, around the same time, many newspapers reported that the Explorers Club served mammoth. Howes wrote back to Dodge to thank him for the sample, and to clarify what exactly it was a sample of.
“Dodge wrote this very confusing, bombastic, long-winded response,” Glass, now a term member of the Explorers Club, said. “It went on this long tangent about [how] it could be mammoth or it could be sloth … and then at one point [Dodge] says, jokingly, ‘What if I could, say, turn giant ground sloth into Chelonia mydas?’”
Chelonia mydas is the scientific name for green sea turtle.
Caccone noted that the results of this study show the importance of museum collections and of keeping good specimen records, as well as the power of DNA analyses and collaborative research, as the authors of the study came from three different departments at Yale.
Davis and Glass were co-lead authors while Caccone and Sargis, along with Timothy Walsh of the Bruce Museum, were co-authors of the study, published Feb. 3.
The 112th Annual Explorers Club Dinner will take place at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan on March 6. It is billed as Oceans; Current of Life.