It was a difficult year for Homo sapiens. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted our vulnerabilities in an ever-changing natural world. Many were pushed to find new levels of determination and creativity to survive.
While humans are quarantined, birds, bedbugs, fish and mammals show their ingenuity. The year was 2020, when killer hornets appeared in the United States, scientists introduced us to an octopus as sweet as emoji, and researchers found that platypus glowed under black light.
Following are some articles about animals – and the people who study them – that surprised or delighted readers of The Times the most.
The longest year, the longest animal
In many ways, 2020 felt like the longest year. It is also the year when scientists discovered the potentially longest creature in the ocean: a 150-foot-long siphonophore, observed in the deep ocean near Western Australia.
“It looked like an amazing UFO,” said Dr. Nerida Wilson, Senior Research Fellow at the Museum of Western Australia.
Each siphonophore is a colony of individual zooids, clusters of cells that are cloned thousands of times to produce an elongated string-like body. While some of her colleagues compared the siphonophore to a stupid tape, dr. Wilson said the body is much more organized than that.
As the world stops, salamanders own the road
This year, amphibian migrations in the northeastern United States coincided with a coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing and ordering shelter led to a drop in car traffic, which turned this spring into an unintentional, big experiment.
“We often get this opportunity to explore the real impacts that human activity can have on amphibians crossing the road,” said Greg LeClair, a graduate student of herpetology at the University of Maine who coordinates a project to help salamanders cross roads safely.
He was a stick, she was a leaf; together they made history
It was a centuries-old mystery of leaf insects: What happened to the female Nanophyllium?
In the spring of 2018 at the Montreal Insectarium, Stéphane Le Tirant received a pile of 13 eggs that he hoped would hatch into leaves. The eggs were not oval, but prisms, lanterns of brown paper barely larger than chia seeds.
They were laid by a wild-caught female Phyllium asekiense, a leaf insect from Papua New Guinea belonging to a group called frondosum, which was known only from female specimens.
After the eggs hatched, the two became slender and stick-like, even sprouting a pair of wings. They had an unusual resemblance to leaf insects in Nanophyllium, a very different genus whose six species are described only from male specimens. The conclusion was obvious: the two species were actually one and the same and were given a new name, Nanophyllium asekiense.
“Since 1906, we’ve never found only men,” said Royce Cumming, a graduate student at New York City University. “And now we have our final, solid proof.”
An octopus as sweet as an emoji
What is hidden from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, in the Coral Sea? The region was largely unexplored and unexplored until a recent expedition searched its dark waters, discovering an abundance of life, strange geological features and spectacular deep corals.
An expedition organized by the Schmidt Ocean Institute mapped the distant seabed with sound beams and set up tethered and autonomous robots to take close-up images of black depths.
Their work was filmed by a video of an octopus dumbo – which bears a striking resemblance to octopus emojis – and a successful population of the region under the nautical chamber. The team also found the deepest living corals in the waters of Eastern Australia and identified as many as 10 new species of fish, snails and sponges.
It’s time to hibernate like a hummingbird
The energy needed to stay afloat in 2020 can feel similar to that used by hummingbirds. Flying creatures have the fastest metabolism among vertebrates, and in order to encourage their lively lifestyle, they sometimes drink their own body weight in nectar on a daily basis.
In order to conserve their energy, hummingbirds in the Andes Mountains in South America have been found to enter an extremely deep spring, a physiological state similar to hibernation in which their body temperature drops by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the year ends, we may have the opportunity to learn from these birds slowly.
It shines like platitus
When we last checked the platypus, it confused our expectations of mammals with their nets on their legs, duck-like and laying eggs. More than that, it produced poison.
Now it turns out that even his gray-eyed coat hides a secret: When you turn on the black lights, it starts to glow.
Shining ultraviolet light on the platypus, the animal’s fur fluoresces with a greenish-blue color. Platypuses are one of the few mammals known to exhibit this trait. We are still in the dark about why they are doing this – if there is a reason at all. Scientists also discover that they may not be alone among the secret glowing mammals.
Bats, probably the original source of the coronavirus
An international team of scientists, including a prominent researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, analyzed all known coronaviruses in Chinese bats and used genetic analysis to determine the likely origin of the new horseshoe coronavirus.
The researchers, mostly Chinese and American, conducted an exhaustive search and analysis of coronavirus in bats, keeping in mind the identification of hotspots of potential outbreaks of these viruses in humans and the resulting disease outbreaks.
Genetic evidence that the virus originated from bats was already overwhelming. Horseshoes, especially horseshoes, were considered likely hosts because other transmissible diseases, such as the outbreak of SARS in 2003, originated from viruses derived from these bats.
No bat virus is close enough to the new coronavirus to suggest that it jumped directly from bats to humans. The immediate ancestor of the new virus was not found, and it could have been present in bats or some other animal.
Kenya has the worst locust outbreak in 70 years
“It was like an umbrella covered the sky,” said Joseph Katone Leparole, who has lived most of his 68 years in Wambi, Kenya, a pastoral hamlet.
A swarm of desert locusts cut off the path of devastation through Kenya in June. The sheer size of the swarm stunned the villagers. At first they thought it was a cloud filled with cold rain.
Extremely mobile creatures can travel over 80 miles a day. Their swarms, which can contain as many as 80 million adult locusts per square kilometer, eat the same amount of food a day as about 35,000 people.
Although spraying with chemicals can be effective in controlling pests, locals are worried that the chemicals will damage the supply of water used for drinking and washing, as well as for watering crops.
Climate change is expected to intensify and erupt locusts more seriously.
Millions of minks slaughtered to stop the spread of coronavirus
Earlier this year, the Danish government slaughtered millions of minks on more than 1,000 farms, citing concerns that a mutation in a new coronavirus that has infected mink could interfere with the vaccine’s effectiveness for humans.
Scientists say there are reasons beyond this mutated virus for Denmark to act. Mink farms have been shown to be a breeding ground for the coronavirus, and the mink is capable of transmitting the virus to humans. They are the only animal known to date.
This set of mutations may not be harmful to humans, but the virus will undoubtedly continue to mutate in mink as well as in humans, and the overcrowded conditions of mink farms could exert evolutionary pressure on the virus different from that in the human population. The virus could also jump from mink to other animals.
Hornet killers are there for your bees
The arrival of “hornet killings” in the United States has certainly managed to draw the world’s attention this spring.
The Asian giant hornet is known for its ability to wipe out a hive of honey bees within a few hours, beheading the bees and flying away with the breasts of the victims to feed their young. For larger targets, strong venom and hornet stings – long enough to pierce a beehive’s suit – make a nagging combination that victims have compared to hot metal entering their skin.
This fall, after several sightings in the Northwest Pacific, Washington state officials reported that they had discovered and eliminated the first known hornet nest for murders in the country. The nest of aggressive hornets was removed just when they were about to enter their “slaughter phase”.
Even if no other hornets are found in the area in the future, officials will continue to use traps for at least another three years to ensure that the area is free of hornets.