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17,000-year-old puma poo contains oldest parasite DNA ever found

An Ice Age parasite found in fossilized feces has haunted big cats for thousands of years.

Puma (Felis concolor) adult resting, Montana, USA, October, controlled subject

An adult puma in Montana. A new study sheds light on the parasites that plagued its ancient brethren. 

Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ancient animal scat is sharing secrets about parasites and the animals they infested during the Ice Age. Inside puma feces radiocarbon-dated to be between 16,570 and 17,000 years old, scientists found eggs from the parasite Toxascaris leonina, a type of roundworm that continues to plague animals today. 

Fossilized puma poop has a few surprises inside.

Cambridge University Press

"This is the oldest molecular parasite record worldwide, and it supports the presence of this parasite since the Pleistocene in America," reads a new study in the journal Parasitology. "These findings have implications for the biogeographic history of parasites and for the natural history of the region."

The fossilized poop was discovered in a sedimentary layer inside a rock shelter 3,582 meters (11,751 feet) above sea level in Argentina. Tests places the fossilized feces at the end of the last Ice Age. The scientists used DNA tests to determine that the feces belonged to the large wildcat species of a puma.

The DNA inside the poop was likely well preserved due to cool temperatures inside the rock shelter where the poop was discovered, as well as the high salt concentrations and rapid drying of the poop itself, according to the study.

"The research shows that if the coprolite is preserved in the right environment, we can detect eggs and DNA from parasites many thousands of years old," Piers Mitchell, director of the ancient parasites laboratory at the University of Cambridge told The Guardian. "This will make it easier to plot how different types of parasites are evolving over time."

Originally published Aug. 28, 8:42 a.m. PT.