100 Best Science Photos of the Year
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Stunning ScienceThis year was full of amazing science … and stunning images to boot. From stunning animals — including a dancing peacock spider, a baby sea dragon, the cutest dinosaur ever and a glowing alien-like sea creature — to ancient history, including a striking Etruscan sarcophagus in the shape of a woman’s face and the youngest Egyptian mummy, to the plain bizarre — think an ancient tattoo on a mummy’s neck and a volcanic smiley face, there’s plenty to look at in the world of science from 2016. Click through to see Live Science’s best in science images.
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Shimmering against a deep-black background, a rarely seen larval cusk-eel looks more "alien with a Mohawk" than bony fish. Photographer Jeff Milisen earned the top prize in the Underwater Photography Guide's Ocean Art Contest this year for the dazzling shot.
During the fish's larval stage (shown in the photo), it sports a gracefully trailing blue-hued appendage holding its gut. Illuminated by the camera's light, this digestive system takes the form of tube-like structures under the head, and extending the length of its external digestive sack.
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Another amazing shot from the Ocean Art Contest, this one of a barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo) took first place in the "Wide Angle" category. The photographer, Francesco Visintin, captured the image at Forte dei Marmi, in Tuscany, Italy. He said that several factors — rising sea temperatures, mating season, a decrease in natural predators of jellyfish, as well as winds and currents — concentrated thousands of these jellyfish in the shallow waters off the Versilia coast.
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This striking face is a sarcophagus produced by the Etruscans, a culture that thrived in central Italy about 2,500 years ago, before being encompassed by Rome.
This sarcophagus was one of two seized from a warehouse in Geneva, along with other artifacts that authorities suspected had been looted from archaeological sites. Swiss officials said the objects were stored by a "former high-profile British art dealer" who'd previously been linked to looting, a description that may have referred to dealer Robin Symes.
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This starry-eyed cutie got his close-up and became one of approximately 2.5 million unsuspecting animals that got their "selfies" taken from one of 1,000 camera traps in 15 tropical forests in South America, Africa and Asia. The project amassed images of 244 animal species. This leopard (Panthera pardus) was caught offguard in Nouabale Ndoki National Park, Republic of the Congo. [See more images of "animal selfies."]
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Stunning Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls looks like a fairyland in this image of a rainbow spanning the chasm where the Zambezi river thunders over a precipice. The falls, situated between Zambia and Zimbabwe, send 250,000 gallons (950,000 liters) of water plunging 355 feet (108 meters) every second.
In April, National Geographic released a new 360-degree video showing people swimming in a calm eddy at the top of the falls.
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A colorful new peacock spider shows off. Researchers discovered this new species, Maratus lobatus, along with six other new peacock spiders in western and southern Australia this year. The dramatic arachnids are known for flashing their colors during elaborate mating dances. This spider was first discovered and photographed by an insect educator named David Knowles, prompting scientists to track down the species and describe it formally.
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The entire universe
A huge place scrunched into a very small space took the Internet by storm this year. Using images from NASA and some of his own "textures," artist Pablo Carlos Budassi created a logarithmic visualization of the entire universe: with our solar system at the center, encircled by the inner and outer planets, the Kuiper belt — a disc of frozen volatiles and icy bodies, including the dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake — followed by the Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri (closest star system to our solar system), the Perseus Arm, Milky Way (our galaxy), the Andromeda galaxy, other nearby galaxies, the cosmic web of gas that stretches between galaxies, cosmic microwave radiation, and encircling the edge is the Big Bang's invisible plasma on the edge, according to a description on Wikimedia Commons.
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High-speed video this year revealed that chameleons are more than showy color-changers: They also have snappy tongues, 2016 research revealed. The chameleon species, ranging from 1.6 to 7.8 inches (4 to 20 centimeters) long, the cute reptiles could launch their tongues an average distance of 1.5 times their body length. And the smaller the chameleon, the farther it could project its tongue relative to its body length and with more power. For instance, individuals of this species, Trioceroshoehnelii, ranged from 2.9 to 3.5 in. (7.5 to 8.8 cm) in length, and could shoot their tongues up to nearly 8 in. (20.3 cm), or about 2.3 times their body length. Shown here, a day-old baby T. hoehnelii.
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Stand tall, octopus
Here, a gloomy octopus (Octopus tetricus) displays a dark color and spreads its arms. The eight-armed denizen of the deep was thought to be a loner, using its clever color-changing abilities to intimidate predators, or hide from them. But this year, researchers found social behaviors: Both male and female octopuses were found to communicate with each other with both posturing and color changes.
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Bird vs. lizard
Look out! The giant flightless bird Genyornis newtoni runs from a Megalania Prisca lizard in this artist rendition of a scene 50,000 years ago in Australia. G. newtoni was 7 feet tall (2.1 meters) and weighed in at around 500 lbs (227 kilograms). In January, researchers reported that humans cooked and ate this bird's cantaloupe-sized eggs for supper, possibly contributing to the animals' decline and extinction.
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Fluffy clouds and clear blue skies reflect off crystal-clear water in St. Mary's Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana. This spectacular image of the rock-bottomed lake was released in association with the IMAX film "National Parks Adventure." The movie, narrated by Robert Redford, celebrated the National Park system on its 100th anniversary.
St. Mary's Lake is a 10-mile-long (16 kilometers) glacially-fed lake on the eastern end of Glacier National Park.
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An adorable Adelie penguin stands tall. A study published in January in the journal Antarctic Science reported that a colony of 150,000 Adelie penguins in East Antarctica had shrunk to a mere 10,000 members after an iceberg cut off their sea access (and their food access — Adelie penguins eat mostly tiny crustaceans called krill). Researchers worried that most of the penguins had did, but some outside experts said they may have simply moved on instead.
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Sean Gravem, a photographer in Pacific Grove, California, captured this golden shot of a wave right before it broke. Gravem uses a Sony a6000 camera in a CMT Water Housing to photograph waves from the water.
"The biggest challenge is that the ocean is so unpredictable," Gravem told Live Science. "Current, tides, weather and swell are always changing and you have to be able to work with all of these together."
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A remarkable black-and-white gecko with striking green eyes is found in a cave in China, though researchers have kept the precise location close to their chests.
It would be too risky to disclose the location of the geckos (Goniurosaurus kadoorieorum), study researchers wrote in a 2015 article in the journal Zootaxia. Previously, lead researcher Jian-Huan Yang told Live Science, commercial collectors had used information in his scientific papers to collect vulnerable species for the pet trade.
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Hello there! A close-up look at a Comanche harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex comanche), part of a project to curate public domain images of insects and spiders. The "Insects Unlocked" project at the University of Texas, Austin, started in summer 2015, training entomologists and students to create striking images of the state's tiny diversity.
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A silverback Grauer's gorilla peers down from a branch in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This subspecies (Gorilla beringei graueri) is a close relative of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Researchers say that instability in the region, along with habitat loss and poaching, has caused the population of these gorillas to drop from 17,000 in 1995 to 3,800 today. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies these gorillas as critically endangered.
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This adorable animal was a resident of The National Aquarium of New Zealand until last April, when it made a break for freedom.
The common New Zealand octopus, Inky, crept through a gap in the top of his tank and crawled along the aquarium floor after close one evening, making his way to a 6-inch-wide (15 centimeter) drain and dropping through. Luckily, the drainpipe led to the ocean, so Inky likely survived to enjoy his independence.
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Deep in a cave in Slovenia, this "dragon" egg waits to hatch. Photographed in March, this is an olm egg. Olms (Proteus anguinus) are also known as European cave salamanders. They can grow to be up to 16 inches (40 cm) long and are pinkish-white. They get their nickname of "cave dragons" because adults look a bit like the babies of some fantastical creature.
These eggs were under the care of their mother in an aquarium at Postojna Cave, a 15-mile-long (24 km) series of passages in the southwest of Slovenia.
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Cutest. Dino. Ever.
The sauropod dinosaur Rapetosaurus krausei grew to lengths of about 49 feet (15 meters). But as a baby it would have made a cute house pet.
Juvenile Rapetosaurus bones found in Madagascar reveal a young dino that stood a mere 14 inches (35 centimeters) at the hips and weighed about 88 pounds (40 kilograms), about the size of a large Golden Retriever. (Its long Sauropod neck would have put its head at just about petting height for the average adult human.) At hatching, the dinosaur would have been about the size of a Chihuahua. No word, though, on how easy it was to house-train.
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Smile! A sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) mugs for the camera as researchers from the University of Delaware in Lewes affix an acoustic tag to track its movements through the open ocean. These tagging studies revealed that these sharks, which were thought to be relatively solitary, actually interact frequently in the open ocean. The tags recorded about 200 encounters between sand tiger sharks, the researchers reported on Feb. 22 at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting.
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Mongooses as hairdressers? Sure, if you're a warthog.
This is a scene at Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park, where banded mongooses often groom warthogs, picking through their fur and looking for tasty ticks and insects to eat. Andy Plumptre, director for the Albertine Rift Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, reported this behavior in January 2016. Such behavior may be more common than realized, because both species must be habituated to humans for the primping to be observed.
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Boo! Who's that on the ocean floor? A camera on a robotic vehicle operated by Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel, caught this ghostly little octopod near the Hawaiian Islands on Feb. 27.
Researchers haven't yet formally described this species, which seems to lack the color-changing chromatophore cells that allow most octopuses and cuttlefish to shift their appearance rapidly.
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Blocking out the sun
A total solar eclipse blacked out the sky on March 9, 2016, over Woleai Island in Micronesia. This image from a NASA webcast shows the moment of totality, when the moon passes completely in front of the sun. Residents of North America will get their turn to see a sight like this on August 21, 2017, when a total eclipse will be visible along a pathway stretching from Oregon through Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
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Pretty in pollen, this jumping spider is also a veggie-lover. In March, researchers rounded up 95 recorded instances of spiders supplementing their diets with plant foods.
A wide variety of arachnids eat everything from pollen to nectar to sap, biologists wrote in the Journal of Arachnology. About 60 percent of veggie-loving spiders are jumping spiders, like this one from Kinshasa, Congo.
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Supersonic shock wave
Zooooooom! The ripples of a plane going supersonic emanate out from the face of the sun in this NASA image released in April. The photograph was taken with a method called the Schlieren technique, which uses a bright light and a mottled dark background to showcase changes in air density. (Light scatters off air of different densities, creating the rippling effect seen here.) The image the shock waves generated by a U.S. Air Force T-38C plane as it breaks the speed of sound.
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A glowing green spider seems to stretch its legs in a NASA image from the constellation Auriga. The image shows the Spider Nebula, a cloud of dust and gases 10,000 light-years from Earth. It was captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All-Sky Survey, or 2MASS. For the record, the nebula isn't really green – infrared colors, invisible to the naked eye, are shown in blue, green and red so that the nebula is visible.
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Reefs, cubedModern art? No, an artificial reef. This image shows the man-made cube reef near Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. Each cube weighs 1.2 tons (1,089 kilograms) and provides shelter for reef animals, which use them as a foundation to rebuild habitat. Free-swimming coral larvae attach themselves to structures like these (other artificial reefs use old vehicles, shipwrecks and even statues), in turn attracting larger reef animals like fish, anemones and sea stars.
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This deep-sea jelly looks as if it's about to announce that it's come in peace. And it might as well be an alien lifeform to us landlubbers — this is a denizen of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of any ocean in the world.
The jellyfish moves by pulsating two sets of tentacles. When it extends all of its tentacles as shown in this image taken by a remotely operated vehicle, the jelly hangs in the water, motionless. Researchers suspect it might use this talent to ambush unsuspecting prey.
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There's not much dignity in the nickname "scrotum frog." Unfortunately, that's the moniker with which this saggy-skinned fellow is saddled.
Snickering at the frog's name overlooks its amazing biology, though. Otherwise known as the Lake Titicaca frog (Telmatobius coleus), these amphibians are found only in the lake of that name in South America. They manage to survive in low-oxygen, 50- to 60-degree Fahrenheit (10 to 17 degrees Celsius) water at 12,500 feet (3,811 meters) elevation. But they are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, in part because they're the main ingredient in a protein strength that's believed to be an aphrodisiac. This frog is on display at the Denver Zoo, which is involved in a conservation effort to prevent Lake Titicaca frogs from vanishing.
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The beauty of Kung Fu
Human movement becomes art in this image, a still from a video piece that went on display in Hong Kong in September. German digital artist Tobias Gremmler used motion capture to track the movements of a martial artist as they went through Kung Fu drills. Gremmler then turned this motion into an abstraction of fabric. In other parts of the video, the practitioner is animated as a collection of sticks, dots, ribbons and sprays of light.
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Divine eyes, lotus blossoms and snakes are among the tattoos on this mummy of an Egyptian woman who lived between 1550 B.C. and 1080 B.C. in the village of Deir el-Medina. Archaeologists first thought that these blue markings were painted on, perhaps right before burial, but closer examinations revealed that they were a permanent feature on the woman's skin. On the woman's neck, seen here, are Wadjet eyes, a symbol associated with divine protection. Between the eyes, right over the woman's voice box are nefer symbols, which indicate goodness.
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Jeepers! These peepers belong to net-casting spiders (Deinopis), which use their wide eyes to hunt at night. These spiders live in Florida, southern Georgia and Costa Rica and build net-like webs to catch prey like ants and crickets.
Researchers tested these spiders' visual acuity by temporarily painting over their pair of large eyes with dental silicon to see if they could still catch prey. The spiders with covered eyes less prey, and struggled especially to catch larger walking insects, than spiders who could see out of their large eyes. The spiders' six smaller eyes didn't seem to help them much, the researchers reported in the journal Biology Letters.
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A crowd of cuttlefish gathers in the Spencer Gulf of South Australia. These Giant Australian cuttlefish (Sepia apama) were in decline, prompting researchers to investigate how cephalopods, the group that includes cuttlefish and octopuses, are doing worldwide. To their surprise, they found that the group as a whole has increased in numbers over the past 60 years. Even Giant Australian cuttlefish recovered during the study period, the researchers reported in the journal Current Biology. Because cephalopods grow rapidly and have short lifespans, they may be particularly adaptable to changing ocean conditions, the researchers concluded.
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How big of squid might be trawling the deep sea? Researchers reported in the Journal of Zoology in May that giant squid (Architeuthis dux) may grow 65 feet (20 meters) long, longer than a school bus.
Since giant squid don't exactly hang out in shallow waters, little is known about them. Anatomical information comes mostly from corpses that wash ashore, like this one. This photograph of a 30-foot-long giant squid was taken in 2013 in Cantabria, Spain.
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Baby giant pandas aren't so giant. Here, a healthy male cub gets scooped into the mouth of his mother, Hao Hao, at Pairi Daiza Wildlife Park in Belgium. The zoo director called the 6-ounce (171 grams) cub a "little pink sausage."
Zoo officials called the healthy cub a "miracle," because the species is notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. The baby, Tian Bao, is now a cuddly ball of fur with his own blog on the zoo's website.
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This photograph of a windswept lion in South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park was taken in 1996, but was part of a traveling exhibition this year highlighting some of the 50 best National Geographic images of all time. The pictures were the ones selected to be on the magazine's first mobile app in 2011. This shot of a lion squinting into the wind in the Nossob riverbed was taken by wildlife photographer Chris Johns.
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Another photograph in the National Geographic traveling exhibition was this 1977 long-exposure shot. Photographer Bruce Dale mounted a camera on a jumbo jet's tail and took a 25-second-long exposure showing the runway lights as the plane approaches for landing.
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A Blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melantopterus) cruises through sun-dappled waters near the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. By tracking sharks as they moved through a deep channel here, researchers found that the animals follow a daily schedule, including a "rush hour" in and out of the lagoon between 7 and 8 o'clock each night.
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Who's up there? This is an indri (Indri indri), a type of lemur native to Madagascar that actually sings. Troops follow a rhythmic beat when making their calls, and even coordinate in lemur choruses. Low-ranking males syncopate their cries for a call-and-response effects, researchers reported June 14 in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. These stand-out calls may be a way to advertise fighting abilities or to call out to potential mates, the researchers said.
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A glacier calving
Ice from an Antarctic glacier calves into the sea. In 2016, the last carbon dioxide monitoring station not to show a reading of 400 parts per million of the gas finally registered that landmark number. The first carbon dioxide observatory to register 400 ppm did so in 2013. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was at least 800,000 years ago, based on ice-core data.
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A giant manta ray glides through Revillagigedo Archipelago, 300 miles (482 km) from Baja California, Mexico. These are the largest rays in the world, with a wingspan that can be as long as 23 feet (7 meters). Until this year, researchers thought that such large marine animals probably migrated long distances, just like whales or Bluefin tuna. A tagging study, however, found that the rays hung out within about 62 miles (100 km) of where they were originally found. Their flexible diet might allow them to stay in one spot rather than roaming to find food, the researchers reported.
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Now here's a looker: This is Lasiognatus dinema, a newly discovered anglerfish found in the Gulf of Mexico during a damage assessment after the 2010 Deepwater horizon oil spill.
"The thing is so ugly, you can't help but stop and look at it," said Quentin Wheeler, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The protrusion on the anglerfish's head is a lure to attract prey. The fish made the college's 2016 list of the top 10 new species discovered in the previous year.
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Titled "Three Pillars," this image snagged first place as the up & coming underwater photographer of the year in the Underwater Photography of the Year contest in 2016. He shot the gorgeous photo of sharks at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas.
Here's what he told the photo contest officials of the shot: " Weary of shooting sharks head-on, and keen to avoid diver’s bubbles in my shot, I decided to turn away from the peak action and the crowds it attracts. I wanted sun rays, dramatic foreground, background perspective, and - the cherry on top - to capture the 'master of the house' in all of its mystique. The three sponges were well-positioned to set the scene beneath the boat and it took countless shots to balance the elements I wanted; but perseverance, patience and practice all paid off. I would like to dedicate my first winning shot to my father, for his introduction to photography, and to my mother for passing on her resilient attitude."
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This usually dormant black hole was seen devouring a star, scientists reported this year. The event was first detected in 2011, but happened a much longer time ago: This supermassive black hole is 3.9 billion light-years from Earth.
A supermassive black hole like this one is typically dormant, but researchers were fortunate to detect this one gobbling up a star that fell under its gravitational influence. Measuring the forces at work could help demystify how black holes grow to these enormous sizes, the scientists reported in June.
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A baby bison walks down a road in Yellowstone National Park on April 27, 2016. Baby bison became a flashpoint this spring after the National Park Service said that it had euthanized a baby bison that park visitors had found abandoned on a roadway. The visitors put the calf in their car to take it the ranger station, which is illegal, and the park eventually euthanized it when it was rejected from its herd, because Yellowstone does not rehabilitate individual animals.
"Our goal is to maintain the ecological processes of Yellowstone," a park representative explained on Facebook.
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This year, scientists found that a gorgeous, but deadly, fish had invaded the Mediterranean Sea. The invader, a common lionfish (Pterois miles) sports venomous spines that can cause painful stings to unsuspecting divers. A close relative, the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) is also a notorious invader, threatening reefs around the southeastern United States, such as Florida, and in the Caribbean Sea.
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Named for its beauty, Myrmecina magnificens, a new species of spiny ant with intricate, wrinkled skin was found in the Singaporean forest this year. Its claim to fame might be its skin, which is imprinted with a fingerprint-whorl pattern and tipped with delicate golden spines that curve toward the front of its body (apparently, an oddity in the ant world).
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Earth's lava lamp
Huge, mysterious blobs of hot, possibly molten, rock were discovered deep beneath Earth this year. Located beneath the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the blobs are each so large they would be as tall as Mount Everest. They start where the planet's mantle layer touches the core. Like lava lamps, the hot blobs send plumes up through the rock, the researchers said.
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Casper the fish
If Casper were a fish… This little guy, about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long, was spotted during an expedition to the deepest spot on Earth, the Mariana Trench. Researchers found the ghost fish, a member of the Aphyonidae family, some 8,202 feet (2,500 meters) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. With translucent, scale-less skin and eerie, colorless eyes, the fish appears as a swimming ghost. In fact, nobody had ever seen an Aphyonidae fish alive before.
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A bizarre-looking ant this year may lack fire-breathing capabilities, but its spiny ornamentation reminded researchers of Drogon, one of the dragons from the "Game of Thrones," so much so that they named it Pheidole drogon after fire-breathing star of the popular fantasy series. The scientists captured P. drogon's body in detail using 3D-imaging technology, called micro computed-tomography, which also helped them to identify the ant.
"This is one of the first studies in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT," study co-author Evan Economo, head of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), said in a statement.
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Caribbean cave art
Markings found in the vast network of caves on Puerto Rico's Mona Island offered scientists a glimpse at some of the first encounters between indigenous and European people some 500 years ago in the Caribbean. At the time, the indigenous people would have dragged their fingers or tools across the surfaces of the soft limestone caves to create the carvings.
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A denizen of the underwater cliffs and rocky seafloor of the deep Caribbean Sea near Curaçao, this riotously colorful scorpionfish came out of hiding this year for scientists during a Smithsonian Institution expedition.
The fish, named Scorpaenodes barrybrowni after nature photographer Barry Brown, spends its time in waters between about 310 and 525 feet (95 to 160 meters) down. The splashy tropical fish is distinguished from other scorpionfish by its starbursts of color and the elongated rays on its fins.
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A volcano that smiles? Yep, in 2016, Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano, which has been actively erupting since 1983, burped out lava in the shape of a smiley face … and the Internet went wild. The face appeared in a lava lake crater on the west flank of Pu'u 'O'o, on Kilauea's East Rift Zone, Live Science reported.
The glowing eyes and mouth resulted from the upwelling and downwelling of lava on opposite sides of the lake. The molten lava creates bright spots that stand out from the dark-colored semi-solid lake surface.
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Scientists at the Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom were able to breed, for the first time, the rare and secretive Montserrat tarantula. First described a century ago on the island of Montserrat, the furry, translucent octopeds were found to be threatened by their predator, the mountain chicken frog.
Except for isolated sightings, nobody had observed the tarantulas; then, three years ago, adults were captured and brought to the zoo. Another three years went by before scientists could get the creepy-crawlies to successfully mate — turned out, the males matured so quickly that scientists had to find exactly the right time to put them with females in order to breed. And in 2016, it happened, resulting in a bumper crop of 200 furry babies.
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Photographer Alex Wild, a curator of entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, launched a project called "Insects Unlocked" to help curators and students master photographic techniques for snapping the best images of insects both in the field and in museums. These public-domain images are then uploaded to the project site for all to view.
Here, a gorgeous sweat bee, in the family Halictidae.
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A cute-as-can-be purple squid with googly eyes was discovered this year off the coast of Southern California. The stubby squid (Rossia pacifica), a species of bobtail squid, is native to the northern Pacific Ocean, where it spends time along the seafloor at depths of around 984 feet (300 meters).
The nocturnal hunter is not just cute: "They actually have this pretty awesome superpower, they can turn on a little sticky mucus jacket over their body and sort of collect bits of sand or pebbles or whatever they're burrowing into and make a really nice camouflage jacket," said Samantha Wishnak, a science communication fellow aboard the E/V Nautilus. "When they go to ambush something and prey on something, they're able to sort of turn off that mucus jacket."
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Sophisticated scanning technology revealed gorgeous storytelling images, or pictographs, on a deer-hide "manuscript" from Mexico for the first time in 500 years. The technology was able to penetrate layers of chalk and plaster. Called the Codex Selden, the 1560 manuscript is one of only 20 surviving codices that were made in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Shown here, a page from the manuscript revealed through hyperspectral imaging. The colorful pictographs are meant to replace words to tell a story.
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If insects could be ballerinas … This parasitoid wasp, and three others, were discovered in China, scientists reported this year. They are quite dainty, under a half-inch (13 millimeters), with elongated necks, dangling legs and eyes that extend nearly to their mouths. Their heads are covered in a satin-like sheen. The species shown here is called Gasteruption pannuceum (from the Latin word "pannuceus," meaning "wrinkled"), named for the wrinkled sheath covering its midbody.
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Exquisite gold earrings with images of dragons and a human face were discovered in the tomb of a woman named Farong, in Datong City, China. The earrings were also decorated with gold, teardrop-shaped designs inlaid with gemstones, the archaeologists said.
Though the woman's remains were in poor condition, she had been buried, some 1,500 years ago, with lavish jewelry, including the two earrings and a necklace of 5,000 beads. An epitaph in the entranceway to the tomb read: "Han Farong, the wife of Magistrate Cui Zhen."
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You may not want to wear this dress, but it's stunning to look at. And it tells a story of science. Artist Sigalit Landau submerged a 1920s-style long, black dress in Israel's Dead Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, for two months. The hypersalinity turned the black dress into a sparkling beauty. Here's how: Salt will crystallize out of high-salt solutions, tending to make these crystals in spots that are the saltiest, leading to crystal growth. As the salt crystallized onto the gown, the cycle of crystallization just continued. The salty sculpture was on view this year at the Marlborough Contemporary museum in London.
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Squishy and cute
A cute robot? Yep. And it's squishy too. This year, scientists unveiled a rubbery little "octobot" (just 2.5 inches, or 6 centimeters, long and wide) that represented the first robot made completely from soft parts. The eight-armed bot doesn't need batteries, being driven pneumatically by steady streams of oxygen gas.
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With a little genetic tinkering, scientists created baby beetles with three compound eyes, one in the center of their heads. The three-eyed critters, dung beetles in the genus Onthophagus, grew a compound eye where their horn once stood.
"We were amazed that shutting down a gene could not only turn off development of horns and major regions of the head, but also turn on the development of very complex structures such as compound eyes in a new location," study leader Eduardo Zattara, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University's Department of Biology, said in a statement.
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Flooding from space
What appear to be little rectangular shapes popping out from a mucky-brown background in a NASA satellite image are rooftops of homes swallowed up, temporarily at least, by intense rainfall that flooded parts of Louisiana in August. The most extreme flooding occurred along the Amite River, which exceeded its previous height record in Magnolia, Louisiana, by more than 6 feet (1.8 meters).
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As if marks left by fairies in Australia, these barren, circular patches that dot grasslands have long mystified scientists. The fanciful "fairy circles," as they're called, have a slew of potential explanations, ranging from "termites did it," to the idea that scarce water and other nutrients drive a process called self-organization in the vegetation.
Previously, the circles had been seen only in southeastern Africa, mostly Namibia. Then, this year, scientists spotted them in satellite images in Western Australia. Their finding, they said, suggested that termites may be the culprits.
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On Sept. 1, the moon and the Earth passed across the face of the sun, simultaneously, making for a brilliant sight. And NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory was at the ready, revealing this surreal shot. Since Earth's atmosphere absorbs some of the light from our hots star, the planet's shadow during the double eclipse appears fuzzy, though the moon's shadow stays sharp and distinct.
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Fossils of some of the first four-limbed vertebrates to call Earth home, called Acanthostega, were discovered and reported this year. Analysis of the fossils suggested that some 360 million years ago, a school of juvenile lizard-like creatures ─ sans any parental chaperones ─ died in a watery grave in present-day Greenland.
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An unusual "drilling bee" was discovered this year, one that seems to prefer hard work. The bee, dubbed Anthophora pueblo, gnaws its home out of vertical sandstone rock faces (even when softer dirt is available) in Utah, southwest Colorado and Death Valley in California, the researchers. The apparently solitary nesters build their rocky alcoves next to each other, sort of like insect apartment dwellers.
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Boom, boom, boom
A trio of volcanoes erupted at once on a remote archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean this year. The volcanoes unleashed giant plumes of smoke that were captured in a false-color image by a NASA satellite passing overhead on Sept. 29. Such false-color images can make it easier to distinguish ice from ash and clouds by using portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are typically invisible to the human eye.
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Some 2 billion to 3 billion years ago, several lakes, including one bigger than several of North America's Great Lakes, formed on the surface of Mars, researchers found this year. At that time, scientists suspect Mars lacked much of its atmosphere and likely was too cold to host liquid water.
The behemoth Martian lake would have overflowed into an enormous basin called Heart Lake (shown here), which held 670 cubic miles (2,790 cubic km) of water, the researchers reported in September in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Planets.
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This deep-sea diving squid, called Gonatus berryi, isn't afraid to eat its own kind. Scientists discovered the cannibalism using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to study the eating habits of more than 100 different squid species in the Gonatus genus in Monterey Submarine Canyon, off the California coast.
The videos from the deep revealed that two species, G. berryi (shown here eating its own) and G. onyx were particularly proficient cannibals. Out of video of 109 squid eating their meals, the researchers found that 42 percent of G. onyx's prey ere other G. onyx squid.
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Muscle cells taken from the hearts of rats were given an unlikely mission: to help a new robot stingray swim. One of the scientists involved in the feat had noticed that the beating of stingray "wings" resembles the beating of a heart. When the heart cells contract, they pull the bot's wings downward for swimming in its pool of sugar water (sugar serves as the tiny robot's fuel).
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Any guess as to what this cloud of high-speed droplets could be? You might not want to know.
These are frames from a high-speed video of someone sneezing, showing the resulting "turbulent cloud" of saliva and hot, moist air. The forceful eruption of the sneeze lasts about 150 milliseconds, but the images show the droplets from the cloud hovering for much longer. In fact, researchers reported in August in the New England Journal of Medicine, large droplets from a sneeze can reach as far as 6.5 feet (2 meters) away from the sneezer, while smaller droplets can travel as much as 26 feet (8 m) away. In other words: Cover your mouth.
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Pokemon Go character or endangered species? Researchers believed that this puffball, the Santa Marta Toro (Santamartamys rufodorsalis), was extinct until 2011, when someone spotted one in its habitat in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia. An expedition into the forest this year sought more evidence of the elusive rat. Scientists festooned camera traps with heart-shaped cherry lollipops in hopes of luring out the animals. Unfortunately, the solitary Toro declined to make an appearance. Researchers will try again in 2018.
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The flannel moth caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis) apparently shares a stylist with the president-elect. Wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer snapped this shot of the caterpillar in the Peruvian Amazon and immediately noticed that it bore a resemblance to Donald Trump's infamous 'do. The species isn't new — it's known locally as "ovejillo" or "little sheep" — but it is rather nasty. The hairs are covered with tiny hooks that make them incredibly irritating to the touch… oh, and they're venomous, too.
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Even the Mars rover is getting in on the selfie craze. NASA's Curiosity rover snapped the photos for this composite image between Sept. 17 and Sept. 20 at a site on the Red Planet called Quela. The rover was drilling here to collect data about Mars' ancient geology. Its findings, according to NASA, reveal that billions of years ago, this rocky area was the site of a system of lakes. Curiosity took this selfie with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the end of its arm.
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A child soaks in the drama of an aragonite specimen from Yunnan, China. This and other amazing minerals went on display at the new David Friend Hall at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History this October. Aragonite is a crystalline form of calcium carbonate and can form in hot spring, marine or cave environments.
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At just 4 days old, this zebrafish embryo took the top prize in the annual Nikon Small World photo contest. And no wonder — look at that mug.
Oscar Ruiz of the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center captured this image during the course of his research into the development of the zebrafish face. By making genetic alterations and then tracking their effects on facial development, researchers can determine the underlying causes of such abnormalities as cleft palate, a condition in which the roof of the mouth and underlying structures don't close correctly.
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New Arctic view
This view of the top of the world makes "blue marble" a misnomer. From the Arctic, Earth looks more like a white marble. NASA created this image with stitched-together satellite views to commemorate the first Arctic Science Ministerial meeting in Washington, D.C. in September. Leaders from eight Arctic nations, U.S. Arctic officials and other stakeholders met to discuss Arctic science and observation, Arctic community resilience and STEM education.
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In October, conservation experts opened the shrine said to be the original tomb of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Here, the building that houses the shrine, The Holy Edicule, is surrounded by protecting sheeting and equipment. Conservationists had to shore up the structure, which has been held up by an unsightly scaffold of iron bars since the 1940s. In the process, they removed the marble cladding that covers the original bedrock where Christ is said to have been buried after the crucifixion.
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A brilliant green glow lights up the Norwegian sky on October 26. A strong geomagnetic storm in late October caused magnetic disturbances in the atmosphere, bringing the aurora as far south as the northern United States. Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden all saw spectacular shows, and skywatchers in Wyoming and northern Wisconsin captured images of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, much farther south than it is normally seen.
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It was a Twitter hashtag campaign for only the most die-hard of romantics: An effort to find a mate for a rare snail found in compost heap in southwest London.
The snail, dubbed "Jeremy" after garden-loving British politician Jeremy Corbyn, has a rare genetic mutation that causes its shell to spiral counter-clockwise. Most snails have right-spiraling shells, and Jeremy's asymmetry means its genitals are on the wrong side of its body for successful mating with these righties. Since left-spiraling snails are so rare, Jeremy was unlikely to meet a mate the old-fashioned way. So evolutionary geneticist Angus Davison of the University of Nottingham took to Twitter to ask people to be on the lookout for leftie snails that Jeremy might mate with. It took only weeks for a promising candidate from Ipswich to turn up, PhysOrg reported in November.
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River runs through it
An unforgettable visualization is revealing the winding path of every single river in the U.S.
Much of the Midwest is fed by the mighty Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, while the arid Southwest may look dry on the surface, but is actually part of the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins.
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In November, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity came upon a curious site: A grey, oval-shaped object that looks nothing like the normal rocks on the Red Planet. A closer chemical analysis revealed the mysterious rock, dubbed an "Egg Rock" by the Curiosity team, was actual an iron-nickel meteorite that fell to the Martian surface.
The odd meteorite was found by Curiosity's laser-shooting instrument, called ChemCam, which zaps nearby rocks with laser beams, then measures the light that bounces back to identify the chemical composition. The rock came from a region of Mars known as Mount Sharp, and likely came from the molten core of an asteroid, researchers say.
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And you thought sharing a sixth-floor walkup with roommates was crowded. It turns out a whole ecosystem of gross bugs also shares people's homes, including a new species of cockroach that originally hails from Turkestan, a study from November reveals.
Some houses had as many as 40 different species of arthropods, which includes insects and spiders.
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When wild animals aren't being terrifying, they can be downright hilarious. Animals in this year's Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards included these headless penguins, photographed by wildlife photographer Charles Kinsey on South Georgia Island, as well as squirrels pigging out on corn, a fox burying his head in the snow and a frog with a contagious smile.
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Baby cave lions
In October, scientists reported the discovery of the bodies of two, 30,000-year-old cave lion cubs that had been perfectly preserved in the permafrost in Russia.
The mummified cubs, named Uyan and Dina, were so well preserved that scientists could tell one of the cubs had fed from its mothers' milk just hours earlier. The adorable, doomed pups were so young when they died that they likely couldn't see, researchers speculated. The finding could help scientists learn how cave lions grew in comparison to their modern-day cousins.
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Now people can hold not just the world in their hands, but the entire Universe. A group of scientists have created the blueprints for 3D printing the Universe. The wrinkly microcosm is meant to mimic the cosmic background radiation permeating the entire universe.
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Google maps for the brain
A stunning new visualization is allowing researchers to navigate inside the mouse's brain much as they do on Google Maps. The map a richly detailed view of the cortex structure in the mouse brain, a structure that is the size of a pebble.
The map was created by the Allen Institute for Brain Science by painstakingly mapping connections and structures in the brain, then creating a common framework for scientists to use for their own research insights.
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Dave the earthworm
The world's heaviest earthworm was discovered in November in a United Kingdom garden. The giant earthworm, named Dave by the stepson of the man who stumbled upon the creature, is almost as long as the average house cat.
However, Dave's enormous size (shown here in comparison to a London metro card) didn't protect him in the end. He was anesthetized and preserved for display at the Natural History Museum.
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The record for the world's largest swarm of drones was broken in November when Intel launched a fleet of 500 "firework" drones into the sky.
The flying firework show was made by quadcopter drones fitted with LED lights. These simple drones, made of foam and plastic, weigh about 0.5 pounds (280 grams). According to Intel, the LED can also light up in 4 billion different combinations, creating luminous shows of nearly infinite variety.
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Stellar life and death
It's the circle of life on a galactic scale. A gorgeous image captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Smithsonian's Submillimeter Array (SMA) shows the death of one star in the cloud Cygnus X-3 as it is being devoured by a black hole, while nearby cloud Little Friend is a stellar nursery, giving rise to bright little lights in a gas and dust cloud known as a Gok globule.
The life and death in the two clouds are occurring relatively close together, with the two stars being 20,000 and 24,000 light-years away, respectively. Cygnus X-3 is emitting powerful X-rays as it dies, producing a bright burst of light, while Little Friend produces the dimmer glow on the right.
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Alien superstructure? Evidence of ancient civilization? It turns out, a mysterious pyramid structure on Antarctica is actually just a mountain, carved into its eerily symmetrical shape by hundreds of millions of years of erosion.
The unnamed mountain may have gotten its unusual shape thanks to freeze-thaw cycles, in which snow or water seeps into cracks in the rock, then freezes and expands overnight, causing the cracks to expand. Over time, this can cause large chunks of the rock face to fall off.
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Utah's Great Salt Lake is gradually becoming less great, at least if size is any measure. The lake has been shrinking by about 35 percent since settlers arrived in the 19th century. In October, the lake reached its lowest height in recorded history. The shrinking lake was captured in a NASA satellite image earlier this month (December).
The Great Salt Lake, which is the country's biggest body of water, is shrinking thanks to the steady diversion of river water that would normally fill it, NASA scientists say.
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If a kiss is worth a thousand words, then these ants are having an epic conversation. Florida carpenter ants swap spit to pass along chemical information to the colony, according to research published in December.
The chemicals in the saliva may help make ants in a colony smell a like and may even affect who the insects grow.
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A massive crack in the ice-shelf in Antarctica was recently captured in a dramatic satellite image. The cavernous rift in the ice shelf, called Larsen C, was spotted off the Antarctic Peninsula by scientists working on NASA's IceBridge mission.
The crack is as big as a football field, and when it finally splits the shelf in to, it will give rise to an iceberg the size of Delaware, researchers say. That, in turn, could lead the entire ice shelf to collapse, experts say.
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A jazz musician and amateur scientist recently discovered cosmic space dust lurking in the gutters of London.
For years, John Larsen, a Norwegian musician, has been collecting debris from gutters and sending it to Matthew Genge, a geologist at Imperial College London. Though sorting out space dust from the detritus of modern life was written off as too difficult, his seemingly quixotic search paid off when he found cosmic particles that date to early in the solar system's history, when the sun was still a fledgling star.
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Fly, parrot, fly!
An intrepid parrot wearing a pair of red-hued goggles could help scientists discover the secrets to bird flight. The parrot flies through an artificial fog, and its wings flap away particles of moisture. By tracing the trajectory of these jostling water droplets with laser beams, researchers are discovering that past models of animal flight weren't as accurate as thought. The new study could help scientists build better autonomous flying robots.
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Untangling these knots would require a massive hair brush. A gorgeous new image from the Hubble Space Telescope has captured a close-up view of the swirling, tangled structure inside the galactic core of NGC 4696.
NGC 4696 is about 150 million light-years distant from Earth, and is part of the sprawling Centaurus galaxy cluster, a group of hundreds of galaxies bound together in the constellation of Centaurus.
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A feathery dinosaur tail was recently discovered trapped in amber. The tail feathers, which once belonged to a non-birdlike theropod known as a coelurosaur, were captured in the sticky tree sap about 99 million years ago, with even a bit of the soft-tissue preserved.
Such finds can provide an unprecedented look at dinosaur biology that is not revealed by fossils, scientists say.
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Oldest toothy tumor
The world's oldest benign "toothy" tumor was recently discovered hiding in the jaw of a 255-million-year-old relative of mammals known as a gorgonopsian.
The benign tumor, called an odontoma, looks like a group of tiny teeth. The gorgonopsian's jaw was unearthed in 2007 in Tanzania, but the harmless tumor was only discovered years later when the researchers decided to slice open the jaw bone into thin sections.