Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Andes


In 1985, a frozen mummy was found in Cerro Aconcagua (Argentina). Archaeological studies identified the mummy as a seven-year-old Inca sacrifice victim who lived >500 years ago, at the time of the expansion of the Inca Empire towards the southern cone. The sequence of its entire mitogenome was obtained. After querying a large worldwide database of mitogenomes (>28,000) we found that the Inca haplotype belonged to a branch of haplogroup C1b (C1bi) that has not yet been identified in modern Native Americans. The expansion of C1b into the Americas, as estimated using 203 C1b mitogenomes, dates to the initial Paleoindian settlements (~18.3 thousand years ago [kya]); however, its internal variation differs between Mesoamerica and South America. By querying large databases of control region haplotypes (>150,000), we found only a few C1bi members in Peru and Bolivia (e.g. Aymaras), including one haplotype retrieved from ancient DNA of an individual belonging to the Wari Empire (Peruvian Andes). Overall, the results suggest that the profile of the mummy represents a very rare sub-clade that arose 14.3 (5-23.6) kya and could have been more frequent in the past. A Peruvian Inca origin for present-day C1bi haplotypes would satisfy both the genetic and paleo-anthropological findings.

Concepts: South America, Americas, Argentina, Latin America, Chile, Andes, Peru, Inca Empire


Global climate change is driving species poleward and upward in high-latitude regions, but the extent to which the biodiverse tropics are similarly affected is poorly known due to a scarcity of historical records. In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt ascended the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador. He recorded the distribution of plant species and vegetation zones along its slopes and in surrounding parts of the Andes. We revisited Chimborazo in 2012, precisely 210 y after Humboldt’s expedition. We documented upward shifts in the distribution of vegetation zones as well as increases in maximum elevation limits of individual plant taxa of >500 m on average. These range shifts are consistent with increased temperatures and glacier retreat on Chimborazo since Humboldt’s study. Our findings provide evidence that global warming is strongly reshaping tropical plant distributions, consistent with Humboldt’s proposal that climate is the primary control on the altitudinal distribution of vegetation.

Concepts: Earth, Climate change, Solar variation, Andes, Global warming, Glacier mass balance, Alexander von Humboldt, Chimborazo


This study focuses on the descendants of the royal Inka family. The Inkas ruled Tawantinsuyu, the largest pre-Columbian empire in South America, which extended from southern Colombia to central Chile. The origin of the royal Inkas is currently unknown. While the mummies of the Inka rulers could have been informative, most were destroyed by Spaniards and the few remaining disappeared without a trace. Moreover, no genetic studies have been conducted on present-day descendants of the Inka rulers. In the present study, we analysed uniparental DNA markers in 18 individuals predominantly from the districts of San Sebastian and San Jerónimo in Cusco (Peru), who belong to 12 families of putative patrilineal descent of Inka rulers, according to documented registries. We used single-nucleotide polymorphisms and short tandem repeat (STR) markers of the Y chromosome (Y-STRs), as well as mitochondrial DNA D-loop sequences, to investigate the paternal and maternal descent of the 18 alleged Inka descendants. Two Q-M3* Y-STR clusters descending from different male founders were identified. The first cluster, named AWKI-1, was associated with five families (eight individuals). By contrast, the second cluster, named AWKI-2, was represented by a single individual; AWKI-2 was part of the Q-Z19483 sub-lineage that was likely associated with a recent male expansion in the Andes, which probably occurred during the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1450 AD), overlapping the Inka period. Concerning the maternal descent, different mtDNA lineages associated with each family were identified, suggesting a high maternal gene flow among Andean populations, probably due to changes in the last 1000 years.

Concepts: DNA, Genetic genealogy, Y chromosome, Short tandem repeat, Andes, Peru, Inca Empire, Matrilineality


High-elevation environments above 2500 metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.) were among the planet’s last frontiers of human colonization. Research on the speed and tempo of this colonization process is active and holds implications for understanding rates of genetic, physiological and cultural adaptation in our species. Permanent occupation of high-elevation environments in the Andes Mountains of South America tentatively began with hunter-gatherers around 9 ka according to current archaeological estimates, though the timing is currently debated. Recent observations on the archaeological site of Soro Mik'aya Patjxa (8.0-6.5 ka), located at 3800 m.a.s.l. in the Andean Altiplano, offer an opportunity to independently test hypotheses for early permanent use of the region. This study observes low oxygen (δ(18)O) and high carbon (δ(13)C) isotope values in human bone, long travel distances to low-elevation zones, variable age and sex structure in the human population and an absence of non-local lithic materials. These independent lines of evidence converge to support a model of permanent occupation of high elevations and refute logistical and seasonal use models. The results constitute the strongest empirical support to date for permanent human occupation of the Andean highlands by hunter-gatherers before 7 ka.

Concepts: Scientific method, South America, Bolivia, Andes, Peru, Altiplano, Lake Titicaca, Aconcagua


Cultivated potatoes (Solanum tuberosum L.), domesticated from wild Solanum species native to the Andes of southern Peru, possess a diverse gene pool representing more than 100 tuber-bearing relatives (Solanum section Petota). A diversity panel of wild species, landraces, and cultivars was sequenced to assess genetic variation within tuber-bearing Solanum and the impact of domestication on genome diversity and identify key loci selected for cultivation in North and South America. Sequence diversity of diploid and tetraploid Stuberosum exceeded any crop resequencing study to date, in part due to expanded wild introgressions following polyploidy that captured alleles outside of their geographic origin. We identified 2,622 genes as under selection, with only 14-16% shared by North American and Andean cultivars, showing that a limited gene set drove early improvement of cultivated potato, while adaptation of upland (Stuberosum group Andigena) and lowland (S. tuberosum groups Chilotanum and Tuberosum) populations targeted distinct loci. Signatures of selection were uncovered in genes controlling carbohydrate metabolism, glycoalkaloid biosynthesis, the shikimate pathway, the cell cycle, and circadian rhythm. Reduced sexual fertility that accompanied the shift to asexual reproduction in cultivars was reflected by signatures of selection in genes regulating pollen development/gametogenesis. Exploration of haplotype diversity at potato’s maturity locus (StCDF1) revealed introgression of truncated alleles from wild species, particularly Smicrodontum in long-day-adapted cultivars. This study uncovers a historic role of wild Solanum species in the diversification of long-day-adapted tetraploid potatoes, showing that extant natural populations represent an essential source of untapped adaptive potential.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Evolution, Species, Solanum, Potato, Andes


Adaptation drives genomic changes; however, evidence of specific adaptations in humans remains limited. We found that inhabitants of the northern Argentinean Andes, an arid region where elevated arsenic concentrations in available drinking water is common, have unique arsenic metabolism, with efficient methylation and excretion of the major metabolite dimethylated arsenic and a less excretion of the highly toxic monomethylated metabolite. We genotyped women from this population for 4,301,332 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and found a strong association between the AS3MT (arsenic [+3 oxidation state] methyltransferase) gene and mono- and dimethylated arsenic in urine, suggesting that AS3MT functions as the major gene for arsenic metabolism in humans. We found strong genetic differentiation around AS3MT in the Argentinean Andes population, compared with a highly related Peruvian population (FST = 0.014) from a region with much less environmental arsenic. Also, 13 of the 100 SNPs with the highest genome-wide Locus-Specific Branch Length occurred near AS3MT. In addition, our examination of extended haplotype homozygosity indicated a selective sweep of the Argentinean Andes population, in contrast to Peruvian and Colombian populations. Our data show that adaptation to tolerate the environmental stressor arsenic has likely driven an increase in the frequencies of protective variants of AS3MT, providing the first evidence of human adaptation to a toxic chemical.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Bioinformatics, Natural selection, Metabolism, Population genetics, Andes, World population


The Inca Empire is claimed to have driven massive population movements in western South America, and to have spread Quechua, the most widely-spoken language family of the indigenous Americas. A test-case is the Chachapoyas region of northern Peru, reported as a focal point of Inca population displacements. Chachapoyas also spans the environmental, cultural and demographic divides between Amazonia and the Andes, and stands along the lowest-altitude corridor from the rainforest to the Pacific coast. Following a sampling strategy informed by linguistic data, we collected 119 samples, analysed for full mtDNA genomes and Y-chromosome STRs. We report a high indigenous component, which stands apart from the network of intense genetic exchange in the core central zone of Andean civilization, and is also distinct from neighbouring populations. This unique genetic profile challenges the routine assumption of large-scale population relocations by the Incas. Furthermore, speakers of Chachapoyas Quechua are found to share no particular genetic similarity or gene-flow with Quechua speakers elsewhere, suggesting that here the language spread primarily by cultural diffusion, not migration. Our results demonstrate how population genetics, when fully guided by the archaeological, historical and linguistic records, can inform multiple disciplines within anthropology.

Concepts: South America, Bolivia, Andes, Ecuador, Peru, Inca Empire, Quechua, Inca


We mapped the inferred long-distance migrations of four species of Amazonian goliath catfishes (Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii, B. platynemum, B. juruense and B. vaillantii) based on the presence of individuals with mature gonads and conducted statistical analysis of the expected long-distance downstream migrations of their larvae and juveniles. By linking the distribution of larval, juvenile and mature adult size classes across the Amazon, the results showed: (i) that the main spawning regions of these goliath catfish species are in the western Amazon; (ii) at least three species-B. rousseauxii, B. platynemum, and B. juruense-spawn partially or mainly as far upstream as the Andes; (iii) the main spawning area of B. rousseauxii is in or near the Andes; and (iv) the life history migration distances of B. rousseauxii are the longest strictly freshwater fish migrations in the world. These results provide an empirical baseline for tagging experiments, life histories extrapolated from otolith microchemistry interpretations and other methods to establish goliath catfish migratory routes, their seasonal timing and possible return (homing) to western headwater tributaries where they were born.

Concepts: Fish, Human migration, Amazon River, South America, Amazon Basin, Andes, Catfish, Peru


Genetic data in studies of systematics of Amazonian amphibians frequently reveal that purportedly widespread single species in reality comprise species complexes. This means that real species richness may be significantly higher than current estimates. Here we combine genetic, morphological, and bioacoustic data to assess the phylogenetic relationships and species boundaries of two Amazonian species of the Dendropsophus leucophyllatus species group: D. leucophyllatus and D. triangulum. Our results uncovered the existence of five confirmed and four unconfirmed candidate species. Among the confirmed candidate species, three have available names: Dendropsophus leucophyllatus, Dendropsophus triangulum, and Dendropsophus reticulatus, this last being removed from the synonymy of D. triangulum. A neotype of D. leucophyllatus is designated. We describe the remaining two confirmed candidate species, one from Bolivia and another from Peru. All confirmed candidate species are morphologically distinct and have much smaller geographic ranges than those previously reported for D. leucophyllatus and D. triangulum sensu lato. Dendropsophus leucophyllatus sensu stricto occurs in the Guianan region. Dendropsophus reticulatus comb. nov. corresponds to populations in the Amazon basin of Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru previously referred to as D. triangulum. Dendropsophus triangulum sensu stricto is the most widely distributed species; it occurs in Amazonian Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, reaching the state of Pará. We provide accounts for all described species including an assessment of their conservation status.

Concepts: Species, Amazon River, Brazil, South America, Amazon Basin, Andes, Peru, Amazon Rainforest


Geographic barriers and elevational gradients have long been recognized as important in species diversification. Here, we illustrate an example where both mechanisms have shaped the genetic structure of the Neotropical rainfrog, Pristimantis ornatissimus, which has also resulted in speciation. This species was thought to be a single evolutionary lineage distributed throughout the Ecuadorian Chocó and the adjacent foothills of the Andes. Based on recent sampling of P. ornatissimus sensu lato, we provide molecular and morphological evidence that support the validity of a new species, which we name Pristimantis ecuadorensis sp. nov. The sister species are elevational replacements of each other; the distribution of Pristimantis ornatissimus sensu stricto is limited to the Ecuadorian Chocó ecoregion (< 1100 m), whereas the new species has only been found at Andean localities between 1450-1480 m. Given the results of the Multiple Matrix Regression with Randomization analysis, the genetic difference between P. ecuadorensis and P. ornatissimus is not explained by geographic distance nor environment, although environmental variables at a finer scale need to be tested. Therefore this speciation event might be the byproduct of stochastic historic extinction of connected populations or biogeographic events caused by barriers to dispersal such as rivers. Within P. ornatissimus sensu stricto, morphological patterns and genetic structure seem to be related to geographic isolation (e.g., rivers). Finally, we provide an updated phylogeny for the genus, including the new species, as well as other Ecuadorian Pristimantis.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Speciation, Extinction, Andes, Biogeography, Ecuador