It was a tough year for Homo sapiens. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted our vulnerabilities in a natural world that is constantly changing. Many were pushed to find new levels of determination and creativity to survive.
While humans are quarantined, birds, bugs, fish and mammals exhibit their own ingenuity. The year 2020 was when the killer horn appeared in the United States, scientists introduced us to an octopus that was as cute as emoji, and scientists discovered that platypuses glow under a black light.
The following are some articles about animals – and the people who study them – that surprised or delighted readers of The Times most.
The longest year, the longest animal
In many ways, 2020 has felt like the longest year. It is also the year that scientists discovered potentially the longest creature in the ocean: a 150-foot-long siphonophore, spotted in the deep ocean off western Australia.
“It looked like an incredible UFO,” said Dr. Nerida Wilson, senior researcher at the Western Australian Museum.
Each siphonophore is a colony of individual zooids, clusters of cells that clone thousands of times to produce an enlarged, string-like body. While some of her colleagues compared the siphonophor to a silly string, Dr. Wilson that the organism is much more organized than that.
While the world is at rest, salamanders own the road
This year, amphibious migrations in the northeastern United States coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing and orders with shelter on site caused vehicle traffic to fall, making this spring an unintentionally large experiment.
“It’s not too often that we get this opportunity to investigate the true effects that human activity can have on toad’s toads,” said Greg LeClair, a graduate student in herpetology at the University of Maine who is coordinating a project to help salamanders cross roads safely.
He was a stick, she was a leaf; together they created history
It was a century-old leaf insect mystery: What happened to the female Nanophyllium?
In the spring of 2018 at the Montreal Insectarium, Stéphane Le Tirant received a clutch of 13 eggs, which he hoped would hatch in leaves. The eggs were not ovals, but prisms, brown paper lanterns hardly larger than chia seeds.
They were laid by a wild-caught female Phyllium asekiense, a leaf insect from Papua New Guinea that belongs to a group called frondosum, which was known only from female specimens.
After the eggs hatched, two became slender and rod-like and even sprouted a few wings. They had a curious resemblance to leaf insects in Nanophyllium, a completely different genus whose six species had only been described from male specimens. The conclusion was obvious: the two species were actually the same and got a new name, Nanophyllium asekiense.
“Since 1906, we have only found men,” said Royce Cumming, a graduate student at City University of New York. “And now we have our last, solid proof.”
An octopus as sweet as emoji
What lies next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea? The region was mostly unexplored and unknown until a recent expedition searched its dark waters and revealed an abundance of life, strange geological features and spectacular deep corals.
An expedition organized by the Schmidt Ocean Institute mapped the distant ocean floor with sound rays and deployed fixed and autonomous robots to capture close-ups of the soft depths.
Their work captured video of the dumbo squid – which bears a striking resemblance to the squid emoji – and the region’s thriving population of nautical chambers. The team also found the deepest living hard corals in eastern Australian waters and identified as many as 10 new species of fish, snails and fungi.
Time to rest like a hummingbird
The energy required to stay afloat by 2020 may feel like that used by the hummingbird. The industrious creatures have famously known the fastest metabolisms among vertebrates, and to fuel their zippy lifestyle, they sometimes drink their own body weight in nectar every day.
To conserve their energy, hummingbirds in the Andes of South America have been shown to go into unusually deep torps, a physiological state similar to hibernation, where their body temperature drops by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the year ends, it may be an opportunity for us to learn from these little birds and take it slow.
Glows up like platypus
When we last checked the platypus, it confused our expectations of mammals with its flippers, duck-like beaks, and laying eggs. More than that, it produced poison.
Now it turns out that even the dull fur has hidden a secret: When you turn on the black lights, it starts to glow.
Shining an ultraviolet light on a platypus makes the animal’s fur lighten with a green-blue tint. Platypuses are one of the few mammals known to exhibit this trait. And we’re still in the dark about why they do it – if there is a reason at all. Researchers are also discovering that they may not be alone among secret glowing mammals.
Bats, the probable original source of coronavirus
An international team of researchers, including a prominent researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, analyzed all known coronaviruses in Chinese bats and used genetic analysis to trace the probable origin of the new coronavirus to horseshoe bats.
The researchers, mostly Chinese and American, conducted an exhaustive search for and analysis of coronavirus in bats in order to identify hot spots for potential spills of these viruses in humans and consequent disease outbreaks.
The genetic evidence that the virus originated in bats was already overwhelming. Horseshoe bats were especially considered likely hosts because other spillover diseases, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, came from viruses derived from these bats.
None of the bat viruses are close enough to the new coronavirus to suggest that it jumped directly from bats to humans. The immediate ancestor of the new virus has not been found and may have been present in bats or another animal.
Kenya has its worst grasshopper outbreak in 70 years
“It was as if an umbrella had covered the sky,” said Joseph Katone Leparole, who has lived in Wamba, Kenya, a pastoralist village, for most of his 68 years.
A swarm of fast-moving desert jumpers cut a road of destruction through Kenya in June. The large size of the swarm stunned the villagers. They initially thought it was a cloud filled with cool rain.
The highly mobile creatures can travel over 80 miles a day. Their swarms, which can contain as many as 80 million carob adults per square mile, eat the same amount of food daily as about 35,000 people.
While spraying chemicals can be effective in controlling the pests, locals are concerned that the chemicals will damage the water supply used for both drinking and washing as well as irrigating crops.
Climate change is expected to make locust outbreaks more frequent and more severe.
Millions of mink slaughtered to slow the spread of coronavirus
The Danish government slaughtered millions of mink on more than 1,000 farms earlier this year, citing concerns that a mutation in the new coronavirus that has infected the mink could potentially disrupt the effectiveness of a human vaccine.
Researchers say that there are reasons beyond this mutated virus for Denmark to act. Mink farms have been shown to be hotbeds for coronavirus, and mink are able to transmit the virus to humans. They are the only animals known so far.
This set of mutations may not be harmful to humans, but the virus will no doubt continue to mutate in mink, as it does in humans, and the overcrowded conditions on mink farms may put evolutionary pressure on the virus different from those in the human population. The virus can also spread from mink to other animals.
The killer hornets are here for your honey bees
The arrival of the “murder hornets” to the United States certainly managed to draw the world’s attention in the spring.
The Asian giant horn is known for its ability to wipe out a honey bee in a matter of hours, decapitate the bees and fly away with the victims’ breasts to feed their young. For larger targets, the horn’s potent venom and sting – long enough to puncture a beekeeping suit – provide for an unbearable combination that victims have compared to hot metal running into their skin.
In the fall, officials in the state of Washington reported after several observations of the Northwest Pacific that they had discovered and eliminated the first known killer horn nest in the country. The nest of aggressive horns was removed just as they were about to enter their “slaughter phase.”
Although there are no other horns in the area in the future, officials will continue to use traps for at least another three years to ensure the area is free of the horns.