From our attics to our kitchen cabinets, many of us have found mice hiding in our homes.
But scientists were in for a surprise when they discovered the mummified remains of 13 mice in a completely unexpected place – the peaks of three 20,000-foot Andean volcanoes.
With temperatures never exceeding freezing and oxygen levels about half that at sea level, these peaks are not for the faint of heart.
At first it was assumed that the mice had hitchhiked up the volcanoes with Inca pilgrims.
But a new study led by experts at the University of Nebraska claims the rodents got there on their own – although they have no idea why.
Scientists were in for a surprise when they discovered the mummified remains of 13 mice in a completely unexpected place – the peaks of the 20,000-foot Andean volcanoes
With temperatures never exceeding freezing and oxygen levels about half that at sea level, these peaks are not for the faint of heart
Some mouse carcasses were first found in the 1970s and ’80s by archaeologists, who initially suspected that the mice were raised as sacrifices by Inca pilgrims.
“You can’t blame archaeologists for thinking this way, because what other explanation is there?” said Jay Storz, lead author of the study.
“Nothing could live up there, so they had to be moved there.”
This theory was called into question in 2020 when mountaineer Mario Perez Mamani discovered a live scarab mouse on the summit of Llullaillaco – a 22,000-foot volcano on the border of Chile and Argentina.
In the new study, the researchers ventured to three volcanoes themselves – Salín, Púlar and Copiapó – and discovered a total of 13 mouse carcasses.
“These are basically freeze-dried, mummified mice,” said Dr. Storz.
After researchers discovered the mouse carcasses, they brought them back to the lab for analysis.
By measuring levels of carbon-14 – an atom that decays at a known rate – the team was able to determine how long the mice had been dying.
Eight of the mice from Salin and one from Copiapo died just a few decades ago, while four mummies on Pular died 350 years ago, according to the researchers.
Eight of the mice from Salin and one from Copiapo died just a few decades ago, while four mummies on Pular died 350 years ago, according to the researchers
In the new study, the researchers ventured to three volcanoes themselves – Salín, Púlar and Copiapó – and discovered a total of 13 mouse carcasses
“It now seems increasingly clear that the mice got there on their own,” said Dr. Storz.
Meanwhile, an analysis of the mice’s DNA confirmed that they were no different from leaf-eared mice found at lower altitudes.
“Our genomic data shows no: that the mice from the peaks and those from the flanks or base of the volcanoes in the surrounding desert area are all one big, happy family,” said Dr. Storz.
Researchers aren’t sure why the mice climbed the volcanoes in the first place.
On the ground, the animals have several predators, including foxes, mountain lions, smaller cats and birds of prey.
“Surely, if you sit at the top of a 6,000-meter-high volcano, you are at least safe from it,” said Dr. Storz.
“You just have other things to worry about.” But why they rise to these extreme heights is still a mystery.”
While it may sound like a leap, researchers hope the results could prove useful for future missions to Mars.
“Even at the foot of the volcanoes, the mice live in an extreme Martian environment,” added Dr. Storz added.
“And on the tops of the volcanoes it’s even worse.” It feels like being in space.
“It simply boggles the mind that any animal, let alone a warm-blooded mammal, could survive and function in this environment.”
“When you experience all of this firsthand, it becomes even more clear: How in God’s name is anything even alive up there?”
Hard in action: NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are searching for life on the Red Planet
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet and help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth in the early years of the solar system’s evolution.
The vehicle-sized lead rover, called Perseverance, is exploring an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600-foot-deep lake.
The region is thought to have hosted microbial life around 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago, and the rover will examine soil samples to look for evidence of life.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet
The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spacecraft launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance landed in the crater and will slowly collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, possibly by the late 2020s in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the Red Planet using NASA’s Sky Crane system