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Year in Review

2017 delivered amazing biology finds from organisms large and small

From elephants to tardigrades, lizards and larvaceans, Science News covered it all

By
7:00am, December 27, 2017
tardigrade

I WILL SURVIVE  Scientists discovered some surprising biology among a diverse cadre of critters this year. Thanks to its impressive adaptations, one minuscule member, the tardigrade, may just outlive us all.    

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2017 revealed some surprising biology of organisms large and small, from quick-dozing elephants to sex-changing lizards and carbon-dumping sea creatures.

bearded dragon
Switch it up

Toasty temperatures trump genetics when it comes to the sex of a bearded dragon lizard. Now researchers have found how RNA editing helps turn overheated male embryos into females (SN Online: 6/14/17).

larvacean
Homegrown

Giant larvaceans don’t have noses, but they sure know how to blow snot bubbles. The sea invertebrates live in disposable “mucus houses” that, based on recent observations, collect food fast. When these larvaceans ditch a dirty house and “sneeze” themselves a new one, they might send a lot of carbon to the deep sea (SN: 6/10/17, p. 13).

sea spider
Blood and guts

Antarctic-dwelling sea spiders use their long legs for more than creepy-crawling below the ice. Stretches of digestive tract in the creatures’ legs do double duty — not only digesting meals, but also pumping an arthropod version of blood and oxygen through the rest of the body (SN: 2/4/17, p. 13).

fluorescent frog
Fluorescent fashion

South American polka dot tree frogs are the first amphibians known to naturally fluoresce. The frogs’ intense blue-green glow might play a role in complex courtship and fighting behaviors, biologists propose (SN: 4/15/17, p. 4).

upside-down jellyfish
Brainless beauty sleep

Upside-down jellyfish are the first brainless animals known to catch some z’s, lab experiments suggest (SN: 10/28/17, p. 10). The finding raises new questions about when and why sleep evolved.

African elephant
Pachyderm power nap

For some wild elephants, a good night’s sleep ends soon after it starts. Electronic monitoring of two African elephants found that the animals snooze about two hours per day — the shortest sleep requirement recorded for mammals (SN: 4/1/17, p. 10).

hydra
Heads up

Chop off a hydra’s head, and two more grow in its place — or so the ancient Greek myth goes. By fiddling with the cytoskeletons of real-life hydras, researchers found that the pond polyps rely on mechanical forces as well as molecular cues to regenerate head and tentacles in the right places (SN: 3/4/17, p. 19).

flamingos
Balancing act

Flamingos may be more stable standing on one leg than two, especially when asleep, researchers reported (SN: 6/24/17, p. 15). The blushing bird’s center of gravity is located near its tucked-in knee, which helps with stability. A one-legged stance requires little muscular effort, the scientists say, but others caution that it may not be an energy saver.

tardigrade
Ultimate survivor

Tardigrades  are known for withstanding extreme temperatures, intense radiation and even the vacuum of space. Those adaptations could help this hardy lineage survive until Earth is engulfed by the sun in several billion years, researchers estimate (SN Online: 7/14/17). An analysis of the microscopic water bears’ genetic blueprints offers clues to their survival strategies, and challenges claims that tardigrades are extreme gene swappers (SN: 8/19/17, p. 13).

Blue chrysanthemum
Paint it blue

Scientists borrowed a gene each from Canterbury bells and butterfly peas to breed the world’s first true blue chrysanthemums. The method could be used to give other flower species the blues (SN: 8/19/17, p. 12).

Citations

S. Milius. It takes guts for a sea spider to pump blood. Science News. Vol. 191, February 4, 2017, p. 13.

H. Thompson. How hydras know where to regrow their heads. Science News. Vol. 191, March 4, 2017, p. 19.

S. Milius. Wild elephants clock shortest shut-eye recorded for mammals. Science News. Vol. 191, April 1, 2017, p. 10.

S. Milius. First fluorescent frogs might see each other’s glow. Science News. Vol. 191, April 15, 2017, p. 4.

S. Milius. Sea creature’s sticky ‘mucus houses’ catch ocean carbon really fast. Science News. Vol. 191, June 10, 2017, p. 13.

L. Hamers. How bearded dragons switch their sex. Science News Online, June 14, 2017.

S. Milius. How flamingos balance on one leg. Science News. Vol. 191, June 24, 2017, p. 15.

M. Temming. Tardigrades will survive the end of the world as we know it. Science News Online. July 14, 2017.

T. Saey. Tardigrades aren't champion gene swappers after all. Science News. Vol. 192, August 19, 2017, p. 13.

E. DeMarco. Borrowed genes give mums the blues. Science News. Vol. 192, August 19, 2017, p. 12.

M. Quintanilla. To test sleep, researchers don’t let sleeping jellyfish lie. Science News. Vol. 192, October 28, 2017, p. 10. 

Further Reading

S. Milius. Aging's Wild Side. Science News. Vol. 190, July 23, 2016, p. 26.

T.H. Saey. Water bears’ genetic borrowing questioned. Science News Online, December 8, 2015.

S. Milius. New tree of life confirms strange history of birdsScience News. December 11, 2014.

R. Ehrenberg. Life under iceScience News. Vol. 184, September 7, 2013, p. 26.

T. Saey. The why of sleepScience News. Vol. 176, October 24, 2009, p. 16.

S. Milius. Glittering male seeks fluorescing femaleScience News. Vol. 171, February 10, 2007, p. 94.

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