Sixty-five Year Old Mystery Meat

On February 3rd, a paper (found here) was published revealing the species identity of a piece of meat that was served at the 47th Explorers Club Annual Dinner in 1951. The meat served was touted as being from a frozen 250,000 year old giant sloth found at the base of a volcano on Akutan Island, Alaska. I was involved in the project because the piece of meat in question was exhibited at the Bruce Museum from 1951 to at least 1973.

Our former curator and director, Paul Griswold Howes, was a member of the Explorers Club but was unable to attend the dinner that evening and requested that his portion of the meal be placed in 'official preservative' and be sent to him at the museum. Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge, the dinner chairman did so with great interest. The dinner attendees were told they were being served giant sloth, but in later reports it was listed as mammoth. This mysterious discrepancy has persisted for 65 years. Using ancient DNA techniques we reveal the true identity of the meat that was consumed that evening.

Jessica Glass, with the Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, performed the process of DNA extraction and analysis at the Molecular Systematics and Conservation Genetics Center. It turns out the meal was a ruse perpetrated by Commander Dodge and the meat was in fact that of green sea turtle. Dodge somewhat confessed his deception in Explorers Club Journal, but his confession was so theatrical that no one caught on.

The presumed ancient meat in a jar. Photo courtesy matt davis/yale university.

The presumed ancient meat in a jar. Photo courtesy matt davis/yale university.

This project was important for two reasons. If the meat turned out to be from a giant sloth it would extend their known prehistoric range by thousands of kilometers and rewrite the evolution of the species. Second, it shows the importance of natural history collections and their maintenance in perpetuity. We have no idea what technology will be invented in the future that can be used to investigate museum specimens in new and amazing ways. Commander Dodge could never have imagined that his deception would be unraveled by technology that could analyze a structure (DNA) almost unknown at that time. 

Tim Walsh
Manager of Natural History Collections and Citizen Science