Thursday, February 4, 2016

Woolly mammoth was not on the dinner menu in 1951

A Yale-led analysis has shown that a famous morsel of meat from a 1951 Explorers Club dinner is not, in fact, a hunk of woolly mammoth. It is green sea turtle meat, most likely set aside from the soup course.

The event, held Jan. 13, 1951 in the Grand Ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, featured a dinner of Pacific spider crabs, green turtle soup, bison steaks, and portions of a 250,000-year-old woolly mammoth that had been preserved in glacial ice. At least, that’s the menu that entered popular lore. Others in attendance at the dinner thought the main entrĂ©e was meat from an extinct giant ground sloth.

“I’m sure people wanted to believe it. They had no idea that many years later, a Ph.D. student would come along and figure this out with DNA sequencing techniques,” said Jessica Glass, a Yale graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and co-lead author of a study published Feb. 3 in the journal PLOS ONE. ...

The banquet’s promoter, Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge, was a noted impresario and former agent for film star Mae West. He sent out press notices saying the annual dinner would feature “prehistoric meat.” Some attendees took this to mean woolly mammoth meat, while others believed they were being served meat from the giant ground sloth known as Megatherium. ...

A club member unable to attend the dinner, Paul Griswold Howes of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., requested that a piece of meat be saved for him to display at the museum. Dodge personally filled out the specimen label for the fibrous chunk of muscle, saying it was Megatherium.

Yet over the years, the idea persisted that woolly mammoth had been served. The notion fit neatly with other stories in popular culture that imagined prehistoric mammoths found in blocks of glacial ice. That image remains iconic even today. ...

Glass was able to extract DNA, purify it and conduct mitochondrial gene sequencing. The results matched the genetic profile for green sea turtle.

Meanwhile, [Yale graduate student Matt] Davis found an item in the Explorers Club archives that pointed in the same direction. It was a published statement from Dodge soon after the banquet, joking that he may have discovered a “potion” that turns green sea turtle into giant sloth meat.
--Jim Shelton, YaleNews, on another legend debunked by DNA analysis