Discoveries of the year

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor

A big theme of 2020 is how it has played with our perception of time, and I’d wager a big part of that is how many momentous events have happened in such a sort span. Between the nonstop flow of news about the pandemic, powerful racial reckoning, record-setting environmental catastrophes, and an intensely divisive presidential race, 2020 has been the kind of year that made most people want to just blow it up and never look back.

However, when I reflect on everything that happened this year, there are more than a few bright spots—including some amazing scientific discoveries that may have been overshadowed by world events.

This time last year, for instance, astronomers set the world ablaze with news that the bright star Betelgeuse (pictured above in a color composite) was dimming inexplicably, prompting speculation that it may be about to explode. What people may not have noticed is that in August, NASA solved the mystery, announcing that the red giant star had merely belched out some stardust that briefly blocked its light. For all you Jurassic Park fans, hopefully you noticed the announcement in March that scientists managed to isolate the first true hints of dinosaur DNA, from a fossil dating back more than 70 million years. And even as the coronavirus dominated the airwaves, the Democratic Republic of the Congo managed to tame the world’s second-largest outbreak of Ebola in June.

As 2020 comes to a close, it’s been a joy to see signs of positive change that will surely have far-reach impacts, from historic vaccine developments to wide-scale commitments to social equality. But I’m also immensely grateful for these other inspiring developments, which have given me glimmers of hope during a difficult year. When I look back in a decade or two, these are the nuggets of wonder that I will cherish as reminders that humankind, for all its flaws, is capable of some truly remarkable achievements. Happy holidays, everyone.

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Today in a minute

The 57,000-year-old wolf puppy: A gold miner found the the oldest and most complete wolf mummy ever in the permafrost of Canada’s Yukon territory. The juvenile female (pictured above) was part of a vanished ecosystem dating to a time when northwestern Canada was home to American mastodons and other Pleistocene megafauna, Riley Black writes. Researchers already know she was seven weeks old when she died, likely of a den collapse, and she had feasted on fish like Chinook salmon.

Kilauea’s threat: The volcano on Hawaii’s big island is still spewing lava, but officials say the bigger danger comes from the crowds it has attracted to the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Officials have had to remind curious onlookers to maintain social distancing and mask use. Since Kilauea’s eruption Sunday night, local lodgings have been filling up, Hawaii News Now reports. As of early today, lava is 470 feet deep in the lake below Kilauea, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.

Mystery sound: It’s almost certainly not an extraterrestrial telegram. An as-yet unexplained radio signal appears to be coming from the direction of the star closest to the sun, a star that has a planet that may be rocky and temperature like Earth. It’s the most tantalizing detection in a decade-long search for alien broadcasts from the nearest million stars, Nadia Drake writes. The star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light-years away.

COVID-19 updates: A case can be made that shorter quarantines may actually prevent outbreaks. ... It’s theoretical at the moment, but a year from now, it might be beneficial to take another type of coronavirus vaccine as well ... Coronavirus cases are rising sharply in several African nations, raising the specter of a stronger second wave there ... Lastly, here’s our latest on vaccines.

Solving a bonefish mystery: This fisherman’s favorite mainly hangs out in shallow waters, but disappeared to spawn. Now we know where. A study of bonefish off the northern Bahamas found they went to a nearby continental shelf, and dove down 450 or so feet. The silvery fish can remain in the deep water for more than two hours, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports.

Instagram photo of the day

Volcán de Fuego: This often active volcano sits above Antigua, Guatemala. During the activity captured by photographer Karim Iliya, the volcano would explode every 20 minutes or so. Chunks of lava the size of vehicles would fly through the sky and roll down the mountain. A huge explosive sound followed. Sometimes the ash came first and fire would erupt from a black cloud, and other times the lava was visible first, said Karim, who was named Your Shot Photographer of the Month. More than 150,000 people have liked this striking image on our Instagram page.

The night skies

Cosmic treasures: Tonight sky-watchers can enjoy the pairing of the super-bright waxing gibbous moon and the orange-hued planet Mars. The eye-catching celestial pair will dominate the overnight southern sky. Then on Saturday, watch as the moon is nestled almost exactly between the Taurus constellation’s two brightest deep-sky treasures. Below the moon lies the Hyades star cluster. At 180 light-years distant, this V-shaped grouping of stars is one of the closest clusters to Earth. Meanwhile above the moon you’ll find a tight, little patch of light with the naked-eye that is the Pleiades cluster. Despite being over 380 light-years distant, many can distinguish up to seven individual member stars. With the nearby lunar glare, binoculars will begin to show the true beauty of these two stellar nurseries. — Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

Visual discoveries: When your curator was a kid, I adored how Nat Geo maps and graphics let me see worlds I could only imagine by reading. Here’s a look at our best maps and graphics of the year, from the confident handholds of this swinging gibbon (above, from a story on how animals move) and the delicate grip of a robot to the 100 deadliest events of the last 2,500 years.

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Feathered: A German museum acquired a 120-million-year-old dinosaur fossil from the limestone of northeastern Brazil. Now that Ubirajara jubatus, (illustrated above) has captured the interest of paleontologists worldwide as the first feathered, non-avian dinosaur found in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil wants the invaluable fossil back. “This fossil should never have left Brazil,” paleontologist Flaviana Lima tells Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.

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