2020 in Animal Information – The New York Instances
It’s been a tough year for Homo Sapiens. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our weaknesses in an ever-changing natural world. Many have been pushed to find new levels of determination and creativity in order to survive.
While people are quarantined, birds, bugs, fish, and mammals display their own ingenuity. 2020 was when murder hornets appeared in the United States. Scientists introduced us to an octopus as cute as the emoji, and researchers discovered that platypuses glow under black light.
What follows are a few articles about animals – and the people who study them – that most surprised or amazed Times readers.
The longest year, the longest animal
2020 was the longest year in many ways. It’s also the year that scientists discovered what may be the longest creature in the ocean: a 150-foot-long siphonophore discovered in the deep ocean off Western Australia.
“It looked like an incredible UFO,” said Dr. Nerida Wilson, a senior scientist at the Western Australian Museum.
Each siphonophore is a colony of individual zoos, clusters of cells that clone themselves thousands of times to create an elongated, thread-like body. While some of her colleagues compared the siphonophore to a goofy string, Dr. Wilson, the organism is much better organized.
With the world on break, salamanders own the street
This year, amphibious migrations in the northeastern United States coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing and on-site protection resulted in a decline in vehicle traffic, making this spring an unintended large-scale experiment.
“It’s not too often that we get the opportunity to study the real effects of human activity on intersection amphibians,” said Greg LeClair, a herpetology student at the University of Maine who coordinates a project to help salamanders break roads safe to cross.
He was a stick, she was a leaf; together they made history
It was a centuries-old riddle to leaf insects: what happened to the Nanophyllium woman?
In the spring of 2018, Stéphane Le Tirant received a clutch with 13 eggs at the Montreal Insectarium, which he hoped would hatch into leaves. The eggs weren’t ovals, but prisms, brown paper lanterns, hardly larger than chia seeds.
They were laid by a wild-caught female Phyllium asekiense, a leaf insect from Papua New Guinea that belongs to a group called frondosum known only from female specimens.
After the eggs hatched, two became slender and stem-like, and even sprouted a pair of wings. They bore a strange resemblance to leaf insects in Nanophyllium, a completely different genus, the six species of which had only been described by males. The conclusion was obvious: the two species were in fact one and the same and were given a new name, Nanophyllium asekiense.
“We’ve only found men since 1906,” said Royce Cumming, a graduate student at the City University of New York. “And now we have our final, solid proof.”
An octopus as cute as the emoji
What is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea? The region was largely unexplored and unknown until a recent expedition searched its dark waters and discovered an abundance of life, strange geological features, and spectacular deep corals in the process.
An expedition organized by the Schmidt Ocean Institute mapped the remote sea floor with sound beams and used connected and autonomous robots to take close-up photos of the depths of the ink.
Their work recorded a video of the Dumbo octopus, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the octopus emoji, and the thriving population of nautili in the area. The team also found the deepest living hard corals in Eastern Australian waters and identified up to 10 new species of fish, snails and sponges.
Time to hibernate like a hummingbird
The energy needed to stay afloat in 2020 could feel similar to that of the hummingbird. The flying creatures are known to have the fastest metabolism among vertebrates, and to encourage their brisk lifestyle they sometimes drink their own body weight in nectar every day.
Apr. 23, 2020 at 8:46 am ET
To conserve their energy, hummingbirds in the Andes Mountains of South America have been found to go into an exceptionally deep freeze, a physiological state similar to hibernation in which their body temperature drops as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the end of the year it could be an opportunity for us to learn from these little birds and take it easy.
Shines like the platypus
The last time we checked the platypus, it confused our expectations of mammals with its webbed feet, duck-like beak, and oviposition. It also produced poison.
Now it turns out that even his dreary-looking coat has hidden a secret: when you turn on the black lights, it starts to glow.
When a platypus is illuminated with ultraviolet light, the animal’s fur will fluoresce with a greenish-blue hue. Platypuses are one of the few mammals known to display this trait. And we still don’t know why they are doing this – if there is any reason at all. Scientists are also discovering that they may not be alone among secretly glowing mammals.
Bats, likely the original source of the coronavirus
An international team of scientists, including a prominent researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, analyzed all known coronaviruses in Chinese bats and used genetic analysis to trace the likely origin of the novel coronavirus on horseshoe bats.
The researchers, mainly Chinese and Americans, conducted an extensive coronavirus search and analysis in bats to identify hot spots for possible overflows of these viruses on humans and resulting disease outbreaks.
The genetic evidence that the virus came from bats was already overwhelming. Horseshoe bats in particular were considered likely hosts as other spillover diseases, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, came from viruses derived from these bats.
None of the bat viruses are close enough to the novel coronavirus, suggesting it made a direct leap from bats to humans. The new virus’ immediate precursor was not found and may have been present in bats or another animal.
Kenya has the worst locust outbreak in 70 years
“It was like an umbrella covered the sky,” said Joseph Katone Leparole, who lived in Wamba, Kenya, a pastoral hamlet for most of his 68 years.
A swarm of fast-moving desert locusts embarked on a path of devastation across Kenya in June. The sheer size of the flock stunned the villagers. At first they thought it was a cloud with cool rain.
The highly mobile creatures can travel more than 80 miles a day. Their swarms, in which up to 80 million adult locusts can live on every square kilometer, eat the same amount of food as around 35,000 people every day.
While spraying chemicals can be effective in controlling pests, local residents fear the chemicals may affect the water supply, which is used for both drinking and washing and watering plants.
Climate change is expected to make grasshopper outbreaks more frequent and more severe.
Millions of mink have been slaughtered to curb the spread of the coronavirus
The Danish government slaughtered millions of minks on more than 1,000 farms earlier this year, raising concerns that a mutation in the novel coronavirus that has infected the mink could potentially affect the effectiveness of a vaccine for humans.
Scientists say there are reasons for Denmark to act beyond this mutant virus. Mink farms have been shown to be breeding grounds for the coronavirus, and minks can transmit the virus to humans. They are the only previously known animal that does this.
This series of mutations may not be harmful to humans, but the virus will no doubt continue to mutate in the mink, as it does in humans, and the overcrowded conditions in mink farms could put evolutionary pressure on the virus that differs from the one in of the human population. The virus could also jump from the mink to other animals.
Murder hornets are there for your honey bees
The arrival of “murder hornets” in the United States this spring has certainly caught the world’s attention.
The Asian giant hornet is known for its ability to exterminate a honey beehive in a matter of hours, decapitate the bees and fly away with the thoraxes of the victims to feed their young. On larger targets, the hornet’s potent venom and sting – long enough to pierce a beekeeping suit – make for an excruciating combination that victims have compared to hot metal going into their skin.
This fall, officials in Washington state reported after multiple sightings in the Pacific Northwest that they had discovered and disposed of the first known nest of murder hornets in the country. The nest of the aggressive hornets was removed when they were about to enter their “slaughter phase”.
Even if no other hornets are found in the area in the future, officials will still use traps for at least three years to make sure the area is free of hornets.