When a naked mole-rat meets a sneaky sea worm

What do naked mole-rats and ancient sea worms have in common? Quite a bit, which is why they’re sharing real estate in this issue.

One of my favorite parts of editing Science News is reading page proofs, one of the last steps in the long magazine production process. Even though I know what’s going into the magazine and have read the articles before, it’s still like opening up a surprise gift to see the pages come together. It’s the work of dozens of people, a process that starts when writers pitch ideas for news and feature articles. News stories get published first on the Science News website, and there are many more than we can fit in a magazine. So it’s up to managing editor Erin Wayman to choose the ones that will go into print. She looks for the most important or intriguing science of the previous two weeks, and aims for reporting across the fields of science, from artificial intelligence to zoology.

Articles that make the cut often either help answer a question that scientists have worked to solve for a long time, or alert us to something that’s surprising and counterintuitive.

For one page, Wayman picked a report on how naked mole-rats use distinctive dialects to communicate with mole-rats within their social group. “It may seem surprising, but they’re highly social animals, so they would need a way to communicate,” she says. I was surprised and charmed by the notion of these mostly blind critters chirping away in their burrows.

Wayman then paired the chatty naked mole-rats with a story of fossils that suggest giant worms may have dug tunnels in the seafloor millions of years ago, springing forth from them to nab unsuspecting prey. While present-day hairless rodents and ancient predatory worms may not seem to have much in common, Wayman says she sees a pattern. “You’re looking at behavior today and in the past, which gives insights into animal behavior.”

And for more connections between present and past, another story suggests that hominids may have developed a specialized thumb muscle quite early on, one that helps give humans today our firm grip and uniquely adaptable hands. “It’s amazing that the manual dexterity that we rely on has been around for almost 2 million years, even before we were human,” Wayman says. Perhaps we have that muscle to blame for humankind’s newly acquired talent for texting.

Whether it’s clueing our readers into gossipy naked mammals or ancient thumb muscles, we put a great deal of care into choosing articles that not only tell you something interesting or fun about the world, but also something that’s relevant to life today. That includes our continuing in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with a fascinating article explaining how a common antidepressant may help fend off serious illness from COVID-19. I hope you enjoy reading the magazine as much as we love creating it for you. And if you need more great science journalism while awaiting the next issue, we’ve got plenty more for you at www.sciencenews.org.

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.