The animal kingdom never ceases to amaze

It’s a rare day at Science News when we’re not discussing animal attributes, conversations that more often than not include the phrase “That’s amazing.” Whether it’s a croakless frog that communicates by touch or the unique genetics of dogs living near the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, there’s always something new to learn about the creatures that share our world.

In this issue of the magazine, we go all in for animals. We regale you with ants that break the rules of reproduction, snail-eating leeches and the world’s longest known butterfly migration. We also explain why it’s hard to tell if a whale shark is pregnant, how hibernating bears avoid blood clots and how sea cucumbers shoot a sticky organ out of their rear ends to ward off predators. And those are just the stories in the news section.

We also explore animals that can induce hallucinations. It’s a talent we got hip to after the U.S. National Park Service sent out a plaintive message asking people to please not lick the Sonoran Desert toad, which secretes a psychedelic compound. That inspired freelance writer and former Science News intern Deborah Balthazar to learn about other animals — including a fish, a frog, an ant and a sponge — that may have mind-altering powers.

Octopuses don’t need to be hallucinogenic to be cool, but finding out that these intelligent, adaptive cephalopods extensively edit their own RNA molecules adds even more evidence of their awesomeness, molecular biology and senior writer Tina Hesman Saey tells us. And who wouldn’t want to spend some time with a pterosaur? Alas, the last opportunity for going aloft with Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a giraffe-sized reptile that was the largest creature ever to take flight, was about 66 million years ago. But humans continue to be enchanted by pterosaurs, and freelance writer Sid Perkins explains how scientists are discovering new clues to pterosaurs’ origins, preferred cuisine and global dominance.

Truth be told, even the humblest of creatures are amazing. At Science News, our online group chat for discussing all things animal hums with reports of our recent local sightings. They include swarming bees, muskrats, turtles, Caspian terns and green herons. There was even a little brown bird with odd white patches that our resident avian expert, editorial assistant Aaron Tremper, thinks might be a leucistic house sparrow.

These creatures are hardly as exotic as a pterosaur, but they command our attention all the same. As Ed Yong notes in his book An Immense World, every animal lives in its own sensory bubble defined by its way of perceiving the world around it (SN: 7/16/22 & 7/30/22, p. 36). Each is remarkable, from the fox that cuts through my backyard to the ant that wandered across my desk the other day. Humans have learned a lot about how such animals experience the world, but we have also drastically reshaped their environments. Let’s make sure that we preserve their worlds, so that future generations can appreciate them, too.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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