“Mummified” mice were recently discovered atop towering volcanoes in Peru where the Incas once performed ritual sacrifices.
Thirteen of the whiskered rodents were found across three peaks in the Andes, where archaeologists first began encountering mysterious rodent remains in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the time, it was presumed that the animals — known as leaf-eared mice — had traveled with the Incas, and had perhaps fallen victim to their sacrifices (The Incan Empire lasted from 1400 to 1532, and it covered a large swath of South America, according to the British Museum).
But new research indicates the furry creatures separately summited the multi-mile-high volcanoes, where the harsh, almost other-wordly elements preserved their remains for years, according to an Oct. 23 news release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
By analyzing carbon concentrations in the “freeze-dried, mummified mice,” researchers revealed that most of them likely died sometime after 1955, long after the Incan Empire disappeared. Four of the 13 died “at most” 350 years ago, researchers said.
Jay Storz, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, along with colleagues captured live specimens of the mice on the volcanoes to compare to the mummified rodents, according to the release.
Using the rodents’ well-preserved DNA, researchers set out to determine whether they belonged to a distinct sub-population.
“Our genomic data indicate no: that the mice from the summits, and those from the flanks or the base of the volcanoes in the surrounding desert terrain, are all one big happy family,” Storz said in the release.
These findings indicated that the leaf-eared mice didn’t just visit the mountain tops — which reach heights of 20,000 feet — they instead lived there.
Just how the animals were able to survive in such inhospitable climates, where oxygen is scarce and temperatures never reach above freezing, is a question for further study, researchers said.
“It just boggles the mind that any kind of animal, let alone a warm-blooded mammal, could be surviving and functioning in that environment,” Storz said in the release.