Tales of creatures large and small made news this year | Science News



Support credible science journalism.

Subscribe to Science News today.


Tales of creatures large and small made news this year

Snakes, giraffes, turtles and more were in the headlines in 2016

7:00am, December 22, 2016

FRIGHTFUL BITE  A study this year suggested that modern rattlesnakes have a smaller venom arsenal than their ancestors.

Sponsor Message

Scientists filled in the details of some famous evolutionary tales in 2016 — and discovered a few surprises about creatures large and small.

Venom repertoire

By studying a gene family important for toxin production, researchers found that modern rattlesnakes have pared down their venom arsenal over time (SN: 10/15/16, p. 9). Rattlers now have a smaller repertoire of toxins, perhaps more specialized to their prey.

Stepping forward

Small tweaks to a gene that makes a protein important for skeletal development may have led to the big toe and helped shape the human foot for bipedalism (SN: 2/6/16, p. 15).

Surprise absence

A gut microbe collected from chinchilla droppings appears to have no mitochondria, making it the first known complex life without the supposedly universal organelle (SN: 6/11/16, p. 14).

Turtle power

Studies of prototurtle fossils suggest that, instead of serving as natural armor, turtle shells might have got their start by aiding in burrowing (SN: 8/6/16, p. 15). The idea could help explain how turtle ancestors survived a mass extinction 252 million years ago.

peppered mothsColor change

Scientists pinned down the genetic changes that, in a famous example of natural selection, made peppered moths soot-colored (SN: 6/25/16, p. 6).

Tall beginnings

Giraffes should thank genes that regulate embryonic development for their long necks and strong hearts (SN: 6/11/16, p. 9).

Evolution at speed

A study of Darwin’s finches found that medium ground finches with smaller beaks survived better than big-beaked counterparts during a drought. The advantage was linked to a key gene, offering insight into the birds’ speedy evolution (SN: 5/28/16, p. 7).

Age record

Scientists have crowned a Greenland shark as the vertebrate with the longest known life span. Their analysis suggests the predator lived to an age of 392 years (SN: 9/17/16, p. 13).


L. Hamers. Rattlesnakes have reduced their repertoire of venoms. Science News. Vol. 190, October 15, 2016, p. 9.

S. Milius. Gut microbe may challenge textbook on complex cells. Science News. Vol. 189, June 11, 2016, p. 14.

T.H. Saey. Gene tweak led to humans’ big toe. Science News. Vol. 189, February 6, 2016, p. 15.

L. Hamers. Why the turtle got its shell. Science News. Vol. 190, August 6, 2016, p. 15.

T.H. Saey. Jumping gene turned peppered moths the color of soot. Science News. Vol. 189, June 25, 2016, p. 6.

T.H. Saey. Gene found that controls beak size in Darwin’s finches. Science News. Vol. 189, May 28, 2016, p. 7.

T.H. Saey. Giraffe’s long neck linked to its genetic profile. Science News. Vol. 189, June 11, 2016, p. 9.

S. Milius. Study ranks Greenland shark as longest-lived vertebrate. Science News. Vol. 190, September 17, 2016, p. 13.

Further Reading

L. Sanders. Venom hunters. Science News. Vol. 176, August 15, 2009, p. 16.

T.H. Saey. Molecular evolutionScience News. Vol. 175, January 31, 2009, p. 26.

T.H. Saey. New light on moths gone soot-coloredScience News. Vol. 179, May 7, 2011, p. 11.  

The Giraffe Genome Project

S. Milius. Organisms age in myriad ways — and some might not even botherScience News. Vol. 190, July 23, 2016, p. 26. 

Get Science News headlines by e-mail.

More from this issue of Science News

From the Nature Index Paid Content