From Elvis worms to the Milky Way’s edge, these science stories sparked joy in 2020

Elvis worms

After taking a new look at sparkly Elvis worms, researchers realized that these deep-sea dwellers are actually four separate species.

A.S. Hatch et al/Zookeys 2020

Everyone needed a respite from 2020, and tales of discovery provided a happy distraction from the worries of the day. Here are a few reminders that we still live in a world full of wonders.

Flowers at the South Pole

Antarctica was once home to a diverse rainforest. The unearthing of traces of vegetation in 90-million-year-old sediments off the coast of West Antarctica shows just how radically different the planet was during the age of dinosaurs, with conifers, ferns and blooming flowers where an ice sheet sits today (SN: 4/1/20).

illustration of an ancient rainforest near the South Pole
Roughly 90 million years ago, a diverse rainforest (shown in this artist’s reconstruction) flourished within about 1,000 kilometers of the South Pole.J. McKay/Alfred Wegener Institute (CC BY 4.0)

Life finds a way

Researchers are still identifying new species and cataloging the amazing diversity of life on Earth. This year saw the discovery that the sparkly “Elvis worm” of the deep sea is actually four different species (SN: 5/25/20). Other scientists found a bonanza of 10 new bird species and subspecies on remote Indonesian islands (SN: 1/9/20). And the first complete count of plant species on New Guinea revealed more than 13,600 species of vascular plants, the most of any island on Earth (SN: 8/18/20).

Syzygium plant
New Guinea’s impressive array of floral diversity includes this Syzygium plant, a member of the myrtle family.Yee Wen Low, R. Cámara-Leret et al/Nature 2020

Raining reptiles

During a cold snap in southern Florida, lizards started falling from trees, landing legs-up (SN: 10/30/20). The reptiles weren’t hurt, just so cold that they couldn’t move and lost their grip. Oddly, this may be good news for the six lizard species scientists examined. The ability to withstand temperatures down to about 5.5° Celsius may suggest some resilience to extreme weather caused by climate change.

iguana on a sidewalk
This iguana fell out of a tree in Key Biscayne, Fla., after a cold snap in January. Scientists have learned that such lizards are more tolerant of the cold than previously thought.Brett Pierce

Super chill

Hot water can sometimes freeze more quickly than cold, a baffling phenomenon called the Mpemba effect. Scientists couldn’t explain it — and weren’t sure it was even real. Now researchers have demonstrated the bizarre effect for the first time in the laboratory by cooling glass beads as a proxy for the more complex freezing process of water. In some conditions, the researchers say, materials can take a cooling “shortcut” that allows warmer objects to cool faster than colder ones (SN: 8/7/20).

Edge of the map

Astronomers have found the edges of the Milky Way, for the first time showing its enormous span and potentially helping to gauge its heft. Our home galaxy stretches almost 2 million light-years across, more than 15 times as wide as the Milky Way’s spiral disk of stars and planets (SN: 3/23/20). Beyond that disk lies a broad stretch of gas surrounded by a vast halo of invisible dark matter.

Milky Way gamma ray image
The vastness of the Milky Way (shown in a gamma-ray image) seems almost immeasurable, but this year, astronomers put limits on our home galaxy’s bounds.FERMI LAT Collaboration/DOE and NASA

Go fly a snake

Paradise tree snakes can fling themselves 10 meters or more through the air, and engineers have now figured out how they stay aloft. Once the snakes are in the air, they undulate both side to side and up and down, giving them the stability needed to glide (SN: 6/29/20).

Scientists captured the undulating motion of paradise tree snakes as they glide through the sky. A computer simulation based on high-speed video shows that the undulation is necessary for stable flight.

Floats our boat

Here was a chance to witness the seemingly impossible: tiny toy boats floating along both the top and bottom of a levitating liquid. Physicists made this magic happen by shaking a container of liquid, thus keeping a fluid layer aloft above a layer of air and allowing the inverted flotation (SN: 9/2/20).

Physicists knew it was possible to keep a layer of liquid levitated over a cushion of air by vigorously shaking the layers up and down in a container. But new lab experiments have revealed a surprising effect of that antigravity trick. Toy boats and other objects are able to float along the bottom surface of a levitated liquid as well as its top.

Will to survive

One inspiring creature just refused to accept being eaten. The Regimbartia attenuata water beetle is the first prey known to survive a trip through a frog’s entire digestive system, not just by taking a ride (like the fish eggs found this year to survive ducks’ digestive systems) but by actively escaping through the back door (SN: 8/3/20; SN: 6/29/20).

About two hours before this video begins, this pond frog (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) ate a water beetle (Regimbartia attenuata). After traversing the digestive tract, the beetle emerges from the back end of the amphibian, alive. It’s the first documented example of prey actively escaping a predator through the digestive system.

Everybody smile

From grins to grimaces, facial expressions may be universal across human cultures, and from ancient times to the modern day. Just by looking at the faces of sculptures crafted between 3,500 and 600 years ago, without the context of the rest of the sculpture, present-day people correctly interpreted expressions such as anger in depictions of combat and pain in sculptures of people being tortured (SN: 8/19/20).

sculpture of Maya woman
This ancient sculpture of a beaming Maya woman holding a child was among the artworks included in a study of universal facial expressionsPRINCETON UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM 2003-26, GIFT OF G.G. GRIFFIN

Meet PigeonBot

A robotic bird made with real pigeon feathers can change the shape of its wings by fanning its feathers out or gathering them in, making for more birdlike flight. Using the robot, scientists discovered that a bird can steer into a turn by bending just one “finger” on one of its wings (SN: 1/16/20).

A robotic pigeon that can change its wing shape like a real bird paves the way for creating more agile aircraft, and offers a new way to study bird flight.

It’s alive!

Putting Rip Van Winkle to shame, microbes that had been buried in seafloor sediments for more than 100 million years revived and multiplied. All the microbes needed was food to pull them from their dormant state (SN: 7/28/20).

glowing microbes in seafloor sediment
Seafloor sediment from beneath the Pacific Ocean contains still-living microbes (green in this microscopy image) that are more than 100 million years old.JAMSTEC

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

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