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100 Best Science Photos of the Year

Squishy and cute

Octobot Soft Robot

This 'octobot' is made entirely out of soft materials. A pneumatic network (red) is embedded within the octobot’s body and hyperelastic actuator arms (blue).
(Image credit: Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, and Lori Sanders, Harvard University)

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.

Cyclops beetle

Without the orthodenticle gene, this dung beetle (<em>Onthophagus Sagittarius</em>) grows an extra compound eye at the top center of its head.

Without the orthodenticle gene, this dung beetle (Onthophagus Sagittarius) grows an extra compound eye at the top center of its head.
(Image credit: Indiana University)

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.

Flooding from space

noaa-louisiana-flood-aerial

Areas along the Amite River have experienced the most extreme flooding.
(Image credit: NOAA)

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). 

Fairy circles

Fairy circles (barren patches surrounded by grasses) dot this desert area just south of Kintore, in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Fairy circles (barren patches surrounded by grasses) dot this desert area just south of Kintore, in the Northern Territory of Australia.
(Image credit: Airplane photo by Mike Gillam south of Kintore)

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.

Double eclipse

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory witnesses the moon and the Earth passing across the face of the sun simultaneously on Sept. 1, 2016.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory witnesses the moon and the Earth passing across the face of the sun simultaneously on Sept. 1, 2016. Because Earth's atmosphere absorbs some of the sun's light, our planet's shadow is fuzzy, while the moon's is sharp and distinct.
(Image credit: NASA/SDO)

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.

Little lizards

Acanthostega tetrapod fossil

The Acanthostega fossil revealed that the animal was in an immature phase, and was still a juvenile at its time of death.
(Image credit: Jennifer Clack)

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. 

Drilling bee

The bee species Anthophora pueblo excavate their nests in hard sandstone, such as here in Utah's San Rafael Swell.

The bee species Anthophora pueblo excavate their nests in hard sandstone, such as here in Utah's San Rafael Swell.
(Image credit: Michael Orr/Utah State University)

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.

Boom, boom, boom

Trio of Volcanoes - South Sandwich Islands

On Sept. 29, 2016, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this false-color image showing volcanic activity in the South Sandwich Islands.
(Image credit: NASA's Earth Observatory)

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. 

Martian lakes

Young valleys on Mars

Valleys much younger than well-known ancient valley networks on Mars are evident near the informally named 'Heart Lake' on Mars.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

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.

Cannibal squid

Gonatus berryi squid

A Gonatus berryi squid eating another squid of the same species.
(Image credit: Copyright 2008 MBARI)

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.