Tuesday, 14 June 2022


Chelonia. Schildkröten by Ernst Haeckel, 1904
Care for some tarantula with that walrus? No? how about some Woolly mammoth?

While eating study specimens is not de rigueur today, it was once common practice for researchers in the 1700-1880s. 

The English naturalist, Charles Darwin belonged to an elite men's club dedicated to tasting exotic meats. In his first book, Darwin wrote almost three times as much about dishes like armadillo and tortoise urine as he did on the biogeography of his Galapagos finches. 

From his great love of gastronomy, I am surprised any of his tasty specimens made it back from his historic voyage on the HMS Beagle — particularly the turtles.

One of the most famous scientific meals occurred one Saturday evening on the 13th of January, 1951. This was at the 47th Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD) when members purportedly dined on a frozen woolly mammoth. 

Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge was the promotor of the banquet. He sent out press notices proclaiming the event's signature dish would be a selection of prehistoric meat. Whether Dodge did this simply to gain attendees or play a joke remains a mystery. 

The prehistoric meat was supposedly found at Woolly Cove on Akutan in the Aleutians Islands of Alaska, USA, by the eminent polar explorers' Father Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, American geologist, explorer sometimes called the Glacier Priest, and polar explorer Captain George Francis Kosco of the United States Navy.

Fried Tarantula & Goat Eyeballs

This much-publicized meal captured the public’s imagination and became an enduring legend and source of pride for the Club, popularizing an annual menu of exotics that continues today. The Club is well-known for its notorious hors d’oeuvres like fried tarantulas and goat eyeballs as it is for its veritable whose who of notable members — Teddy Roosevelt, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Roy Chapman Andrews, Thor Heyerdahl, James Cameron.

The Yale Peabody Museum holds a sample of meat preserved from the 1951 meal, interestingly labelled as a South American Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium, not Mammoth. The specimen of meat from that famous meal was originally designated BRCM 16925 before a transfer in 2001 from the Bruce Museum to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (New Haven, CT, USA) where it gained the number YPM MAM 14399.

The specimen is now permanently deposited in the Yale Peabody Museum with the designation YPM HERR 19475 and is accessible to outside researchers. The meat was never fixed in formalin and was initially stored in isopropyl alcohol before being transferred to ethanol when it arrived at the Peabody Museum. DNA extraction occurred at Yale University in a clean room with equipment reserved exclusively for aDNA analyses.

In 2016, Jessica Glass and her colleagues sequenced a fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene and studied archival material to verify its identity, which if genuine, would extend the range of Megatherium over 600% and alter views on ground sloth evolution. 

Mammoth, Megatherium — Green Sea Turtle

Their results showed that the meat was not Mammoth or Megatherium, but a bit of Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas. So much for elaborate legends. The prehistoric dinner was likely meant as a publicity stunt. 

Glass's study emphasizes the value of museums collecting and curating voucher specimens, particularly those used for evidence of extraordinary claims. Not so long before Glass et al. did their experiment, a friend's mother (and my kayaking partners) served up a venison steak from her freezer to dinner guests in Castlegar that hailed from 1978. Tough? Inedible? I have it on good report that the meat was surprisingly divine.

Reference: Glass, J. R., Davis, M., Walsh, T. J., Sargis, E. J., & Caccone, A. (2016). Was Frozen Mammoth or Giant Ground Sloth Served for Dinner at The Explorers Club?. PloS one, 11(2), e0146825. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146825

Image: Chelonia. Schildkröten by Ernst Haeckel, 1904, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-07619.

Join the Explorer's Club

Fancy yourself an explorer who should join the club? Here is a link to their membership application. The monied days of old are still inherent, but you will be well pleased to learn you can now join for as little as $50 US.

Link: https://www.explorers.org/wp-content/uploads/Membership-Application_2021-11-19.pdf