Out studying the remains of extinct megafauna, a team of scientists from the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research in Argentina made an interesting discovery. Upon studying a sample of coprolite, or fossilized feces, collected in the mountainous region known as Catamarca Province, the team discovered an ancient parasite.
Their findings published in the journal Parasitology, researchers used radiocarbon dating to reveal that the coprolite dated back to 16,570 and 17,000 years ago, placing it back somewhere towards the end of the last Ice Age. Within the coprolite, they found preserved parasitic roundworms.
The region where the coprolite was found at the time was very different than the South America that you know and love today. Areas like the Peñas de las Trampas in the southern Andean Puna was originally thought to be a much “wetter” area with a climate that attracted megafauna that included everything from giant sloths to even horses; animals that the puma loved to prey on.
However, the discovery of the parasite changes our outlook on the area. Using ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis researchers were able to identify that eggs found in the feces belonged to a roundworm still commonly found in the digestive systems of modern-day cats, dogs, and foxes.
"While we have found evidence of parasites in coprolites before, those remains were much more recent, dating back only a few thousand years. The latest find shows that these roundworms were infecting the fauna of South America before the arrival of the first humans in the area around 11,000 years ago,” says Dr Petrigh, from the National University of Mar del Plata and CONICET.
Why is this important?
The research marks a series of important moment for the research team. First and foremost, as mentioned above, this discovery marks the oldest record of an ancient DNA sequence for a gastrointestinal nematode parasite of wild mammals. Even more so, it also represents the “the oldest molecular parasite record worldwide, and also a new maximum age for the recovery of old DNA of this origin”
"This work confirms the presence of T. leonina in prehistoric times, presumably even before that of humans in the region, and it represents the oldest record in the world,” says Dr. Petrigh.
“The common interpretation is that the presence of T. leonina in American wild carnivores today is a consequence of their contact with domestic dogs or cats, but that should no longer be assumed as the only possible explanation.”
Finally, the study confirms the existence of pumas in the region at the end of the Pleistocene. This helps scientists create a better picture of the history of the region.