The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual

Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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This Football-Sized Fossil Egg is the First Found in Antarctica, and It May Have Belonged to a Mosasaur

An artist’s interpretation of the birth of a baby mosasaur.
An artist’s interpretation of the birth of a baby mosasaur.
Francisco Hueichaleo, 2020

In 2011, Chilean scientists discovered a football-sized fossil off the coast of Seymour Island, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Though they didn’t know what it was at the time—and simply called it “The Thing”—new research shows that not only is it the first fossil egg ever found in Antarctica, it’s also the largest soft-shelled egg ever found anywhere.

In a study published today in the science journal Nature, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Chile dated the nearshore rock formation where the fossil egg was found to be from the Late Cretaceous period—about 68 million years ago—and measured the fossil itself to be roughly 11.4 inches by 7.9 inches (29 centimeters by 20 centimeters). This empty, partially collapsed egg is smaller only than that of the elephant bird, an extinct, flightless species from Madagascar whose eggs averaged about 12 inches by 8 inches.

giant fossil egg from antarctica
A side view of the fossil egg.
Legendre et al. (2020)

But beyond their size, the eggs don’t have much in common; an elephant bird egg is about five times thicker than this fossil egg, and its hard shell has distinct pores and a prismatic layer that the fossil egg lacks. In other words, an elephant bird egg resembles a giant chicken egg. (And giant is no exaggeration—an elephant bird egg could hold the contents of about 150 chicken eggs.)

elephant bird egg next to a chicken egg
An elephant bird egg next to a chicken egg (and a man's head), to put it in perspective.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

With its soft shell and oblong shape, the new fossil egg, from the new taxon Antarcticoolithus bradyi, is more similar to a lizard or snake egg, which suggests it could’ve been laid by a large reptile. To test that theory, the researchers compared it to the egg traits of 259 species of lepidosaurs—a subclass of reptile that includes snakes and lizards—and surmised that the egg-layer may have been a marine reptile that measured roughly 23 feet (7 meters) or longer.

The researchers believe this mystery mother might have been a mosasaur, a type of large marine lepidosaur whose remains have also been discovered in the area. During the Late Cretaceous period, mosasaurs were among the most fearsome predators in the ocean. They had strong flippers and sharp teeth, and some species grew as long as 50 feet (though that’s still a good 10 feet shorter than the fictional mosasaur depicted in 2015’s Jurassic World). Fossilized contents of their stomachs show they feasted on a variety of wildlife, including fish, seabirds, turtles, plesiosaurs, and more—one mosasaur had even eaten a few other mosasaurs. And although mosasaurs did live in Antarctica, the continent during the Late Cretaceous period looked nothing like its current frigid landscape.

“Antarctica was rich in life,” Dr. Julia Clarke, a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Geological Sciences and co-author of the study, tells Mental Floss. “Temperate forests diverse in plant species covered exposed land. Giant marine reptiles and much smaller coiled ammonites and relatives of living birds hunted in the seas, while on land, mid-sized non-avian dinosaurs ambled.”

mosasaur birth and egg
The egg looks a lot smaller when you compare it to a full-grown mosasaur.
Francisco Hueichaleo, 2020

Since scientists have uncovered the remains of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs of all ages in the rock formation where the fossil egg was found, some think it may have been a popular place for creatures to hatch and raise their young.

“Many authors have hypothesized that this was sort of a nursery site with shallow protected water, a cove environment where the young ones would have had a quiet setting to grow up,” Lucas Legendre, a postdoctoral researcher and the lead author of the study, said in a press release.

If the fossil egg really did belong to a mosasaur, it could alter our understanding of how mosasaurs gave birth. In South Dakota during the 1990s, scientists unearthed the skeleton of a lizard-like mosasaur called a Plioplatecarpus with five unborn offspring preserved in its abdomen. Because they weren’t in eggs, it was generally thought that mosasaurs gave birth to live young. The existence of Antarcticoolithus bradyi, however, suggests the possibility that some mosasaurs laid soft-shelled eggs that hatched immediately after.

According to Clarke, the discovery of the fossil egg is especially exciting because it demonstrates “how much we have yet to learn about the evolution of eggs, from the first egg-layers that moved away from water to the immense diversity of eggs and reproductive strategies we see today.”