2020’s science superlatives include the oldest, highest and grossest discoveries

The earliest known modern bird and other record-breaking animals are among the highlights

a 3-D printed skull of Asteriornis maastrichtensis

Vertebrate paleontologist Daniel Field of the University of Cambridge holds a 3-D printed skull of Asteriornis maastrichtensis, also known as the “Wonderchicken,” which lived nearly 67 million years ago and is the earliest known modern bird.

D.J. Field/Univ. Of Cambridge

From the biggest merger of black holes to the world’s oldest string — fashioned by Neandertals, no less — discoveries in 2020 set new records that amazed and inspired.

Highest-temperature superconductor

After more than a century’s wait, scientists have found the first superconductor that works near room temperature. Superconducting up to about 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit), it’s made by squeezing carbon, hydrogen and sulfur between two diamonds and zapping the compound with a laser (SN: 10/14/20). The new material allows current to flow without any energy loss, but only at high pressures, which means practical applications are still a distant vision.

a material being squeezed between the tips of two diamonds
To make the first superconductor that works near room temperature, physicists squeezed to high pressure a material between the tips of two diamonds. Adam Fenster

Oldest, biggest Maya monument

Underneath a previously unexplored site in Mexico called Aguada Fénix, archaeologists uncovered an enormous raised ceremonial structure (SN: 6/3/20). Built about 3,000 years ago and featuring a 1,400-meter-long rectangular plateau with a platform longer than four American football fields, the discovery shows that the Maya civilization built big from its beginnings.

a 3-D remdering of an ancient Maya site
The ancient Maya site of Aguada Fénix, shown in this 3-D rendering, had a ceremonial plateau with a platform and mound in its center. Takeshi Inomata

Best evidence for anyons

Theoretical physicists have long predicted the existence of anyons, a type of bizarre quasiparticle resulting from the movements of electrons that together behave as a particle. In a mind-twisting discovery, physicists braided anyons, which exist only in two dimensions, by looping them around one another within complex layers of materials (SN: 7/9/20). The resulting disturbances observed in the 2-D sheets of material suggest that the quasiparticles are real.

Earliest modern bird

The nearly 67-million-year-old fossilized “Wonderchicken” (also known as Asteriornis maastrichtensis) is the oldest modern bird ever found, meaning that its descendants survived the asteroid impact that wiped out nonavian dinosaurs and led to the birds we see today (SN: 3/18/20). Wonderchicken did indeed look something like a chicken, if it were crossed with a duck and shrunk to the size of a quail.

Grossest discovery

For the first time, researchers observed a snake gnawing a hole in a toad’s belly, slithering inside and gorging on the innards — all while the toad was alive (SN: 10/2/20). The snake may have been avoiding poison that the toad releases from its neck and back, or finding a way to eat a meal too big to swallow whole.

a snake chewing a hole in the stomach of a toad
After chewing a hole into the belly of a toxic toad, a small-banded kukri snake shoved its head inside to eat. Winai Suthanthangjai, H. Bringsøe et al/Herpetozoa 2020

Oldest string

Not only was this scrap of cord handmade more than 40,000 years ago, but the hands that made it belonged to Neandertals, close human relatives who don’t often get props for creativity. The string, made from bark fibers, was found clinging to an ancient tool discovered in France (SN:4/9/20).

Biggest black hole merger

A detection of gravitational waves from two colliding black holes led to a bevy of records (SN: 9/2/20). It’s the first definitive evidence that midsize black holes — those with a mass between 100 and 100,000 times that of the sun — exist. The resulting merger is the most massive spotted so far using gravitational waves, as well as the farthest (17 billion light-years from Earth) and the most energetic: It radiated the equivalent in energy of about eight times the sun’s mass.

Colliding black hole illustration
Two black holes orbited each another, sending out ripples of gravitational waves (illustrated in blue and pink in this computer simulation) before merging to form the first definitive example of a midsize black hole.Deborah Ferguson, Karan Jani, Deirdre Shoemaker, Pablo Laguna/Georgia Tech, MAYA Collaboration

Record-breaking animals

This year saw several record-breaking animal achievements, from the highest-living mammal — a yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse found 6,739 meters above sea level in South America (SN: 7/29/20) — to the longest dive by a marine mammal, a nearly four-hour plunge by a Cuvier’s beaked whale (SN: 9/23/20). There was also the coldest bird, the black metaltail hummingbird, which chills to about 3° Celsius (37° Fahrenheit) overnight to conserve energy (SN: 9/8/20).

Researchers captured a yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse (Phyllotis xanthopygus rupestris) at a record altitude of 6,739 meters, or 22,100 feet, above sea level. Jay Storz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and mountaineer Mario Pérez Mamani discovered the animal at the summit of Volcán Llullaillaco, a dormant volcano on the border of Chile and Argentina.

Erika Engelhaupt is a freelance science writer and editor based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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