Date of this Version
Published in Current Biology 33, pp. R1040–R1042, October 23, 2023.
Our understanding of the limits of animal life is continually revised by scientific exploration of extreme environments. Here we report the discovery of mummified cadavers of leaf-eared mice, Phyllotis vaccarum, from the summits of three different Andean volcanoes at elevations 6,029–6,233 m above sea level in the Puna de Atacama in Chile and Argentina. Such extreme elevations were previously assumed to be completely uninhabitable by mammals. In combination with a live-captured specimen of the same species from the nearby summit of Volcán Llullaillaco (6,739 m),1 the summit mummies represent the highest altitude physical records of mammals in the world. We also report a chromosome-level genome assembly for P. vaccarum that, in combination with a whole-genome re-sequencing analysis and radiocarbon dating analysis, provides insights into the provenance and antiquity of the summit mice. Radiocarbon data indicate that the most ancient of the mummies are, at most, a few centuries old. Genomic polymorphism data revealed a high degree of continuity between the summit mice and conspecifics from lower elevations in the surrounding Altiplano. Genomic data also revealed equal numbers of males and females among the summit mice and evidence of close kinship between some individuals from the same summits. These findings bolster evidence for resident populations of Phyllotis at elevations >6,000 m and challenge assumptions about the environmental limits of vertebrate life and the physiological tolerances of small mammals.