It was a difficult year for Homo sapiens. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted our vulnerabilities in a natural world that is constantly changing. Many were pressured to find new levels of resolve and creativity to survive.
While humans were quarantined, birds, insects, fish and mammals exhibited their own ingenuity. The year 2020 was when killer wasps appeared in the United States, scientists introduced us to an octopus as fluffy as the emoji and researchers found that platypuses glow under a black light.
The following are some articles about animals – and the humans who study them – that surprised or delighted more readers of The Times.
The longest year, the longest animal
In many ways, 2020 appears to be the longest year. It is also the year that scientists discovered potentially the longest creature in the ocean: a 45-meter-long siphonophore, located deep in the ocean in Western Australia.
“It looked like an incredible UFO,” said Dr. Nerida Wilson, a senior researcher at the Western Australian Museum.
Each siphonophore is a colony of individual zoids, clusters of cells that clone thousands of times to produce an elongated, wire-like body. While some of his colleagues compared the siphonophore to a silly string, Wilson said the organism is much more organized than that.
With the world on pause, salamanders dominate the road
This year, amphibian migrations in the northeastern United States coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Social detachment and shelter orders at the site have reduced vehicle traffic, which this spring turned into a large-scale unintended experiment.
“It is not often that we have the opportunity to explore the real impacts that human activity can have on amphibians that cross roads,” said Greg LeClair, a herpetology student at the University of Maine who coordinates a project to help salamanders cross roads with safety .
He was a stick, she was a leaf; together they made history
It was a century-old insect mystery: what happened to the female Nanophyllium?
In the spring of 2018, at the Montreal Insectarium, Stéphane Le Tirant received a litter of 13 eggs that he hoped would turn into leaves. The eggs were not oval, but prisms, brown paper lanterns barely larger than chia seeds.
They were put by a wild female Phyllium asekiense, a leaf insect from Papua New Guinea belonging to a group called frondosum, which was known only to female specimens.
After the eggs hatched, two became thin and toothpicklike and even sprouted a pair of wings. They had a curious resemblance to the leaf insects in Nanophyllium, a totally different genus whose six species had only been described in male specimens. The conclusion was obvious: the two species, in fact, were one and the same, and were given a new name, Nanophyllium asekiense.
“Since 1906, we’ve only met men,” said Royce Cumming, a graduate student at City University of New York. “And now we have our final and solid proof.”
An octopus as cute as the emoji
What is off the Australian Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea? The region was practically unexplored and unknown 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 remote seabed with sound beams and deployed autonomous, tied-up robots to capture close-up images of the dark depths.
Their work captured video of the dumbo octopus – which has an impressive resemblance to the octopus emoji – and the region’s thriving nautili population. The team also found the deepest living hard corals in the waters of eastern Australia and identified up to 10 new species of fish, snails and sponges.
It’s time to hibernate like a hummingbird
The energy needed to stay afloat in 2020 may be similar to that used by the hummingbird. Flowing creatures have the fastest metabolism among vertebrates and, to feed their fast lifestyle, sometimes drink their own body weight in nectar every day.
To preserve their energy, hummingbirds in the Andes mountains in South America were found in an exceptionally deep torpor, a physiological state similar to hibernation in which their body temperature drops by up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the end of the year, it can be an opportunity for us to learn from these birds and take it easy.
Shining like the platypus
The last time we checked the platypus, it was confusing our expectations of mammals with its webbed feet, duckbill and egg laying. More than that, it was producing poison.
Now we find that even your faded-looking coat hides a secret: when you turn on the black light, it starts to shine.
The glow of ultraviolet light on a platypus makes the animal’s skin fluorescent with a blue-green tint. Platypus is one of the few mammals known to have this characteristic. And we still don’t know why they do it – if there is a reason. Scientists are also discovering that they may not be alone among bright and secret mammals.
Bats, the likely original source of the coronavirus
An international team of scientists, including a prominent researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, analyzed all known coronaviruses in Chinese bats and used genetic analysis to track the likely origin of the new coronavirus in horseshoe bats.
The researchers, mostly Chinese and American, conducted an exhaustive research and analysis of coronaviruses in bats, with the objective of identifying critical points for potential overflows of these viruses in humans and outbreaks of resulting diseases.
The genetic evidence that the virus originated in bats was already overwhelming. Horseshoe bats, in particular, were considered likely hosts because other spreading diseases, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, came from viruses that originated in these bats.
None of the bat viruses is close enough to the new coronavirus to suggest that it took a direct leap from bats to humans. The immediate parent of the new virus was not found and may be present in bats or another animal.
Kenya has its worst locust outbreak in 70 years
“It was like an umbrella covering the sky,” said Joseph Katone Leparole, who lived in Wamba, Kenya, a pastoral village for most of his 68 years.
A swarm of desert locusts at high speed opened a path of devastation through Kenya in June. The size of the swarm surprised the villagers. They initially thought it was a cloud filled with cold rain.
Highly mobile creatures can travel more than 80 miles a day. Its swarms, which can hold up to 80 million adult grasshoppers in each square kilometer, eat the same amount of food daily as about 35,000 people.
While spraying chemicals can be effective in pest control, locals are concerned that they stain the water supply used for drinking and washing, as well as watering crops.
Climate change is expected to make locust outbreaks more frequent and more severe.
Millions of mink slaughtered to contain the spread of coronavirus
The Danish government massacred millions of minks on more than 1,000 farms earlier this year, citing concerns that a mutation in the new coronavirus that infected mink could interfere with the effectiveness of a vaccine for humans.
Scientists say there are reasons beyond this specific mutant virus for Denmark to act. Mink farms have been shown to be breeding grounds for coronavirus, and minks are capable of transmitting the virus to humans. They are the only animals known to date to do this.
This set of mutations may not be harmful to humans, but the virus will undoubtedly continue to mutate in mink as it does in people, and the conditions of overcrowding of mink farms can place evolutionary pressures on the virus different from those in the human population. The virus can also jump from mink to other animals.
Killer wasps are here for your bees
The arrival of “killer wasps” to the United States certainly managed to get the world’s attention this spring.
The Asian giant hornet is known for its ability to exterminate a bee hive in a matter of hours, beheading the bees and flying with the victims’ chest to feed their young. For larger targets, the wasp’s powerful venom and stinger – long enough to pierce a beekeeping suit – form a painful combination that victims compared to hot metal sticking into their skin.
This fall, after several sightings in the Pacific Northwest, Washington state officials reported that they discovered and eliminated the first known killer wasp nest in the country. The nest of aggressive wasps was removed when they were about to enter their “killing phase”.
Even if no other hornets are found in the area in the future, authorities will continue to use traps for at least another three years to ensure that the area is free of them.