Summarizing a year like 2020 is a pretty difficult thing to do, especially without resorting to prophanities. But while the news has been sufficiently stocked with reports of doom and gloom, some amazing advances have been made in the name of science. Here, we look back on some of the weirdest and most wonderful stories gifted to us by the natural world in 2020, from the fascinating to the downright bizarre.
Seven years under a rock
The year kicked off with an inspirational example of taking things slow, as scientists reported that an olm salamander had sat under a rock without moving for seven years. The astonishing performance unfolded as researchers tagged and monitored 26 individuals from a cave in Bosnia. The results showed that the olms rarely moved more than 10 meters (33 feet) in a hundred days, and the reigning champion of stasis logged an impressive 2,569 days in the same spot.
In what might be the most impressive example of the famous quote, “Life, uh. Finds a way”, a strange fungus was found earlier this year chomping on radiation at the site of the infamous Chernobyl disaster. In total, scientists have identified around 200 species of fungi, and not only do they tolerate the radiation but a few actually eat the radiation itself. Known as “'black fungi”, these hardcore species are armed with melanin that allows them to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy for growth.
Life without respiration
In a world-first, a team of scientists put that tired, old acronym Mrs Nerg firmly back in her box as they discovered an animal that doesn’t need to breathe to survive. Tucked inside the muscle of salmon, the unusual organism, Henneguya salminicola, is a tiny parasite that consists of just 10 cells. The discovery came about by accident when it was observed it didn’t include a mitochondrial genome, which codes for the mitochondria where oxygen is captured to make energy.
Cheetah cubs from a surrogate
It wasn’t long before natural science threw out another world-first, as two cheetah cubs were conceived through in vitro fertilization and born at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, America. The birth, facilitated by a surrogate named Isabelle, was hailed as a scientific breakthrough as the successful IVF birth could play an important role in conservation efforts for the cheetah, which is red-listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons
Elsewhere, at the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee, keepers reported that the birth of its new Komodo dragons was not quite what it seemed, as they realized the reptiles had been conceived without the help of the zoo's resident male dragon. Parthenogenesis, the process of giving birth without male involvement, is rare in reptiles but far from unheard of. In 2019, for example, eggs hatched from a water dragon at the Smithsonian National Zoo that had been isolated from males since reaching sexual maturity.
Stinging balls of jelly
Ever been in the sea and found yourself getting stung by a seemingly invisible attacker? New research revealed this year that "stinging water" is actually the result of gelatinous stinging grenades released by certain jellyfish. Captive individuals of upside-down jellyfish, Cassiopea, gave the game away as tests of their tank water revealed they emitted mucus-gyrating balls of stinging cells (aka cassiosomes) when agitated or feeding.
RNA editing in squid
The skillset of cephalopods has long been admired, and this year we found out that squids have another trick up their tentacles as it was revealed they can change what their genes code for by tweaking their RNA. This amazing capability has never been observed in another animal and defies previous assumptions that once mRNA had left the cell nucleus no further edits could be made to the transcription taken from the DNA. Now, thanks to squids, we know that’s not true.
Art among the web spinners
Among seven new species of tiny dancing peacock spiders, entomologist Joseph Schubert found one that looks like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Named Maratus constellatus, the walking interpretation of the Dutch-minimalist’s work joins a dozen species of what are colloquially known as “Australia’s mini birds of paradise.” Peacock spiders are famous for their choreography, practiced mostly by males who are hoping to fertilize some eggs without getting eaten.
The curious case of the Long Stringy Thingy
In a “say what you see” approach to nomenclature, what could be the longest animal on the planet was caught on camera by a remote operating vehicle (ROV) on the Ningaloo Canyons expedition, exploring benthic biodiversity in Cape Range and Cloates Canyons in Australia. Estimates based on the diameter of the enormous animal's loops theorize it could be as long as 120 meters (393 feet) in length though the exact length has not been confirmed. The ribbon-like siphonophore (Apolemia uvaria), is made up of millions of zooids all acting together.
Blue bees are back
A rare species of blue bee is “back from the dead” as it was spotted in Florida this spring for the first time since 2016. Researchers say the blue calamintha bee (Osmia calaminthae) was believed to have gone extinct shortly after they were first discovered in 2011 but the new sightings have stoked hopes that it might be possible to bring them back from the brink.
Snake eels’ exit
In the most audacious exit strategy since the Irish Goodbye, harrowing scans have revealed that some snake eels will make a last-ditch attempt to escape their attackers by carving out of their stomachs using a hardened tip on their tail. Once free of the stomach, the snake eels are still trapped inside the animal where they’re eventually mummified in the gut cavity. The same process could explain recent photos of an eel-like creature having burst forth from a heron.
Hummingbirds see colors we can’t imagine
New research has revealed that hummingbirds can detect “non-spectral” color combinations that humans can't see. Unlike our trichromatic vision, hummingbirds use an ancient four-color cone visual system that allows them to see ultraviolet non-spectral color combinations that are not available to the human eye.
Whale sharks have eye teeth
Investigations into the eyes of the world’s largest shark have revealed that their eyes are covered in tiny teeth called “dermal denticles”. Whale sharks are covered in dermal denticles that create a layer of “skin,” which are V-shaped structures that decrease drag and turbulence, allowing them to swim quicker and more quietly. The teeth on their eyes act as a protective layer to prevent their soft eyeballs from being injured.
An unexpected hybrid
Two fish that are further apart on the evolutionary tree than humans and mice surprised fisheries scientists as they cross-fertilized to produce hybrid offspring. Named “sturddlefish”, the hybrids turned out to exhibit differing ratios of their parent’s features, which were paddlefish and sturgeons. Both animals are some of the largest and longest-living fish species in the world, with an ancient divergence from the evolutionary tree that constitutes them as living fossils. They exist in different parts of the planet and last shared a common ancestor when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, leading researchers to think they were far too removed on the evolutionary tree to be hybridized. But apparently not.
Giant sunfish have tiny babies
The larval form of the giant bump-head sunfish (Mola alexandrini) had remained a mystery to ocean scientists until this year when the early life stage of one of the world’s largest fish was uncovered. To the delight of all who enjoy things that are smol and squishy, the larva of the giant bump-head sunfish is ridiculously tiny and resembles something between a cinnamon crunch and a snowflake. Female sunfish hold the record of the highest potential fecundity of any vertebrate, with adult Mola mola housing 300 million ova.
Beetle’s butt escape
Frogs aren’t ones for chewing their food and much of their prey enters their digestive system while still alive. Some insects have adapted crafty defense techniques for finding their way out again, including the beetle Regimbartia attenuata. After being swallowed, these beetles essentially hurry their way through the digestive system and crawl out the frog’s derriere.
Baby talk for bats
Greater sac-winged bat moms use baby talk to communicate with their pups much like humans do. As the babies are developing and working on their vocalizations, the mother will respond in a way that is unique to their pups, potentially providing positive feedback for the newborn. This pup-directed speech pattern appeared to be unique to females as while male bats also communicated with pups, they did it in a way that reflected the “vocal signature” of their social group.
A shark with no skin
A first-time discovery was made by a team of researchers trawling in Sardinia as they brought up a catshark that appeared to have no skin. Investigations into the animal's anatomy revealed that the fish possessed none of the structures associated with elasmobranch skin, the group that contains sharks, and is believed to be the only time such a creature has been found free-swimming in the ocean.
Tree stings with spider-like venom
The first study of the Gympie-Gympie tree surprised scientists, as it was revealed these trees produce molecules closer to animal venoms than plant defenses. Its leaves can put people into intensive care and induce agony that lasts for days or even months. There are unverified accounts of animals needing to be put down after close encounters with Gympie-Gympie trees, but the exploration of its toxins has only just begun.
Spinosaurus was a swimming dinosaur
A well-preserved fossil tail of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus revealed the unique structure of the tail and how this paddle-like appendage would’ve been the perfect propellant for aquatic hunting. If true, Spinosaurus would be the first-known swimming dinosaur. The hypothesis is supported by further research that emerged this year, as a treasure trove of spinosaurus teeth were found in a river bed.
Megalodons were giants
New research emerged this year that confirmed that the iconic megalodon shark was indeed the mighty-toothed giant we all hoped it to be and was far larger than other predatory sharks alive in its time at 15 meters (50 feet) long. The comprehensive study looked at body, jaw, and dentition measurements from extant shark specimens to form accurate predictions of extinct sharks’ body size simply from their fossilized teeth.
Australia’s glowing wildlife
There was much excitement surrounding the news that one of Australia’s most unusual animals, the platypus, glows green under ultraviolet light. As it turns out, there are several animals in the region that share this unusual characteristic, including echidnas (the platypus's closest surviving relatives), bilbies’ ears, possums, some Australian bats, and wombats.
Spiders can hear
New research revealed this year that ogre-faced spiders, so named for their enormous eyes, are able to hear moving prey thanks to special hairs on their legs. The unique skill (for an animal without ears) enables them to perform highly acrobatic predation attempts, pouncing on their victims with a net made from silk.
2020 was a good year for insect armor, as it was revealed that some of the world’s tiniest residents are packing some seriously strong gear. Leaf cutter ants became the first insect species known to possess biomineral armor. The super-tough material made from magnesium-rich calcite crystals is found on the exoskeleton of worker ants belonging to the species of leaf-cutter ant Acromyrmex echinatior.
We also discovered a beetle whose tank-like body armor means it can survive being run over by a car. Known as the diabolical ironclad beetle, this bug has unique forewings that are composed of a chitin and protein matrix, with around 10 percent more protein compared to a lighter flying beetle.
Things have been toughing up in the oceans too, as research published in 2020 revealed that the mantis shrimps’ famous punching power is supported by an impact-resistant nanoparticle coating on their smashers. The super-strength coating contains a rare combination of structures that outperform most man-made materials and could have many applications for future engineering.
NOAA drop a new jelly
A team of ocean scientists from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) came across a bizarre new comb jelly species off the coast of Puerto Rico. Named Duobrachium sparksae, the jelly was found via the Deep Discoverer and is the first species to be described and annotated by the NOAA using only ROV footage.
Research into the hydration needs of elephants showed that these gentle giants can use up two bathtubs-worth of water in a single day. After measuring the elephants’ output, researchers estimated that some elephants were losing up to 10 percent of their body mass when temperatures were high, indicating how important adequate water consumption is to their survival. The incredible finding is cause for concern, as a warming Earth is already depleting the water available to elephants, and competition for resources will likely increase the conflict between human and elephant populations.
A recent study looking at the maximum ages for coral reef fish found a tropical snapper that was 81 years old. This staggering age puts the midnight snapper (Macolor macularis) at two decades above the previous estimate for maximum life expectancy and the oldest tropical reef fish in the world.