On a frigid January evening in 1951, a group of scientists and gourmands gathered at the headquarters of the Explorers Club in the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a lavish dinner.
The club, a professional organization dedicated to the promotion of scientific field research, had already earned a ~reputation~ for its ~exotic~ menus. At previous dinners, members and guests were served "fried tarantulas and goat eyeballs," according to a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.
Still, that year's menu was to include an even stranger dish, the study said. Theater impresario and amateur circumnavigator Wendell Phillips Dodge told his fellow diners that he had procured the meat of a giant beast that had once roamed the great frozen plains of Alaska, but had since gone extinct — the wooly mammoth.
The specimen in question, Dodge told the members, was found buried in permafrost and so perfectly preserved that, tens of thousands of years later, its fatty flesh was still edible.
Thanks in part to an article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor the week after the dinner, the incident went down in history.
But something smelled rotten. So a few Yale University researchers decided to determine if the claim could be true. Luckily, the Peabody Museum, the New Haven university's collection of dinosaur skeletons and other relics, had a sample of the banquet's main course.
The researchers, led by graduate students Jessica R. Glass and Matt Davis, quickly discovered that the specimen — which Dodge had saved for Paul Griswold Howes, a member of the club who couldn't attend the dinner — wasn't even labeled in the museum as mammoth, but as Megatherium, the giant ground sloth from the western coast of South America.
The report in the Christian Science Monitor that started the legend had mistaken one prehistoric beast for another. The Explorers Club members had never been told they'd been served mammoth, but rather giant sloth.
Still, though, "if the meat were in fact" giant sloth, Glass, Davis, and their co-authors wrote in wednesday's PLOS ONE article, "it would rewrite what paleontologists know about ground sloth evolution."
And so the Yale scientists decided to do a DNA test on the preserved meat. They discovered that the sample was not wooly mammoth or giant ground sloth or any other prehistoric beast.
The meat was just plain old sea turtle.
After pouring through the club's archives, the Yale researchers found an editorial that Dodge distributed to his fellow members, in which he claimed to have discovered "a potion by means of which one could change, say, Cheylone mydas Cheuba [the scientific name for sea turtle] from the Indian Ocean into Giant Sloth from the Pit of Hades."
In other words, the whole thing was one big joke.