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100 Best Science Photos of the Year

Caribbean cave art

Puerto Rico's cave art

Indigenous carvings found in caves on Mona Island were made by people dragging their fingers or tools across the surfaces of the soft limestone caves. (Image credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

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.

Starburst scorpionfish

A new species of scorpionfish, <em>Scorpaenodes barrybrowni</em>, discovered in the deep reefs of the Caribbean. This scorpionfish is distinguished from its relatives by the elongated rays on its fins and by its starbursts of color.

A new species of scorpionfish, Scorpaenodes barrybrowni, discovered in the deep reefs of the Caribbean. This scorpionfish is distinguished from its relatives by the elongated rays on its fins and by its starbursts of color. (Image credit: Barry Brown)

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.



The lava in Kilauea's crater formed what looks like a smiley face. (Image credit: Mick Kalber/Paradise Helicopters via YouTube)

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. 

Baby tarantulas

montserrat tarantula spiderling in test tube

Here, one of the Montserrat spiderlings in a test tube. The spiderlings could reveal new insights about the elusive Montserrat tarantulas. (Image credit: Chester Zoo)

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.

Sweat bee

insects unlocked

(Image credit: Public domain image by Christopher Johnson; 'Insects Unlocked' project, University of Texas at Austin)

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.

Googly eyes


The stubby squid's giant eyes, that 'look painted on,' caused one researcher to compare the sea creature to a children's toy. (Image credit: EVNautilus/YouTube)

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."

Hidden text

Codex Selden Hidden Images

Hyperspectral imaging revealed hidden pictographic scenes underneath a layer of plaster and chalk, which are not visible to the naked eye. (Image credit: Copyright Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier)

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.

Long-necked wasp

G. pannuceum Wasp Species

G. pannuceum (from the Latin word 'pannuceus,' meaning 'wrinkled') gets its name from the wrinkled sheath covering its midbody. (Image credit: Jiang-Li Tan)

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.

Ancient bling

Two gold earrings were found beside Farong's skull in Datong City, China.

Two gold earrings were found beside Farong's skull in Datong City, China. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

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."

Salt beauty

salt dress by sigalit landau

A new piece of artwork by Sigalit Landau shows what happens when objects are submerged in the salty waters of the Dead Sea. The sparkly salt sculpture shown here was originally a black dress that was submerged in the Dead Sea for two months. People can view the exhibit at the Marlborough Contemporary until Sept. 3, 2016. (Image credit: Matanya Tausig )

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.