Tim Fitzharris/Minden Pictures

People might have bred tropical macaws in the desert 1000 years ago

Scarlet macaws like this one fly through the jungles of tropical Mexico, Central America, and the Amazon. So what are their skeletons doing in archaeological sites in the deserts of the southwestern United States, at least 2000 kilometers to the north and in an entirely different ecosystem?

To solve the mystery, researchers sequenced the complete mitochondrial genomes (the DNA found in the power plants of cells and passed down only from mothers) of 14 macaws that lived in five archaeological sites in Chaco Canyon and the Mimbres region of New Mexico, where people farmed, traded, and built cities from 900 C.E. to 1200 C.E. Seventy-one percent of the macaws had the exact same mitochondrial genome, and the others differed only slightly, making them all part of a single population called a haplogroup, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That haplogroup appears to be relatively rare in wild populations of macaws; only three of 84 museum samples of scarlet macaws from tropical ranges that the researchers tested belonged to it. So it’s likely the southwestern macaws all descended from a very small group of females captured from the wild—or perhaps even just one.

That implies that instead of being individually captured and transported over great distances, the southwestern macaws were born in a breeding center that supplied feathers and birds to the region for religious and ceremonial purposes. Archaeologists know of just one nearby macaw breeding center, in the deserts of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, but it operated from 1250 C.E to 1450 C.E., centuries after many of these birds lived. So where these macaws were born and raised is still a mystery.