In a year when humans had to confront so much hardship, it was edifying to recall the other-than-humans that came our way, providing perspective, reminding us of our entanglements with the world and giving us a few blessed minutes of distraction and wonder. We have come up with this highly subjective list: Competition was fierce, so the winners must be congratulated.
Don’t let your dog harass an African crested rat.
These skunk-size beasts coat their hairs with poison known to kill elephants. This year we learned more about how they got so deadly. According to research conducted by the rat-trapping scientist Sara Weinstein, they chew on the bark of the poison arrow tree, then spit the masticated chunks all over their own hairs. It’s the only mammal we know of that uses toxins from a plant to make itself venomous.
The Miracle Owl
A visitation above the smoke and flames.
Dan Alpiner, a pilot, was dropping water from his helicopter onto the Creek fire in California when a Western screech owl flew inside, then perched calmly hanging out with him. In an online post, his aviation company said of the owl, “It’s an unexplainable and magical miracle for it to stay with you for several water drops, then leave just as it arrived — safe and unannounced.” It was a rough year for animals and people both as wildfires intensified by warming temperatures and drying climates burned in the West, Australia and elsewhere.
How to flutter undetected in the night.
The wings of Chinese tasar moths have scales that function like acoustic tiles. They absorb the sonar waves of predatory bats, making it very difficult for the bats to detect the moths with echolocation. This is something entirely new. “I haven’t seen anything quite like this in a man-made technology,” said one acoustic engineer. If we could learn from these moths, we could make wallpaper that absorbed sound.
A Sparrow Changes Its Tune
Songbird culture doesn’t stand still.
Ken Otter and his colleagues have studied 20 years of recordings of white-throated sparrows, famous for singing “Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada.” But a new dialect has recently emerged, and is spreading. This sparrow song is more compact, like today’s shorter pop tunes: “Oh Sweet Cana Cana Cana.”
The Giant Siphonophore
This might not be an individual, exactly. Scientists are calling it an “entity.”
The Apolemia, drifting deep in the sea like a long piece of undulating rope, is usually considered a colony of clones. If laid straight, it can be more than half the length of a football field, and is very likely the longest animal … er, entity … ever found.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Spider
A velvet spider named for a villain.
In Iran, the arachnologist Alireza Zamani discovered a new species of velvet spider. The spider’s genus is named Loureedia — after the Velvet Underground guitarist and singer Lou Reed, and Mr. Zamani said they “are very shy in their habits, so discovering a new species was a great and welcome surprise.” He and a colleague named their find Loureedia phoenixi, after the actor Joaquin Phoenix, because the red and white pattern on its back resembles the grimace of the Joker.
The Rescue Moose
He trotted away before he could be thanked.
On Sept. 8, a nature photographer named Marko Haug saw a moose near a reservoir in Paide, Estonia. When he approached, he saw that right where the moose had been standing, a 71-year-old woman who had gone missing was trapped in a ditch. “The most incredible thing,” Mr. Haug said, is that the moose “stayed put in exactly the same place where the old lady was lying in the ditch — as if signaling or drawing attention.”
The New Whale
There are vast mysteries yet to be discovered.
In November, the whale expert Jay Barlow and colleagues working in the Pacific off Mexico spotted some beaked whales, which are seldom seen. Examining their photos, they realized that not only were these beaked whales, they were also never-before-documented beaked whales, potentially a new species. Recordings of their calls appear to be unique. That a 15-foot-long animal has never before been detected underscores how much we have yet to learn about our fellow travelers on this lonely, lovely planet.
Carl Safina, the author of “Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace,” holds the endowed research chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University. David Rothenberg, the author of “Nightingales in Berlin” and “Survival of the Beautiful,” is a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
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