Each year, researchers around the world contribute to humanity’s accumulation of knowledge. Paleontologists and archaeologists uncover traces of the past, revealing ecosystems and civilizations lost to time. Astronomers seek to explain the mysteries of other worlds, while biologists and Earth scientists unravel the workings of our own planet and the life it harbors. And medical researchers study the intricacies of the human body and the diseases that threaten it, developing new tools to safeguard our species.
The revelations that come from our ceaseless exploration and experimentation are often unexpected and extraordinary. Here are some of the year’s most remarkable discoveries.
Spectacular fossils reveal a prehistoric rainforest
In January 2022, researchers unveiled a site in southeastern Australia where the rocks contain an astonishing record of life in an ancient rainforest. The fossils at McGraths Flat are between 11 million and 16 million years old, representing some of the only known rainforest ecosystems dating back to the Miocene epoch. Small, soft-bodied creatures are preserved in extraordinary detail, including spiders fossilized down to their leg hairs and fish with bellies full of midges. The researchers could even see the pores in fossilized leaves that once took in carbon dioxide. “Because of the quality of preservation, we can see into these ecosystems like never before,” says Matthew McCurry, a paleontologist at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney and co-lead author of a study about the find.
Perseverance rover explores the Martian landscape
NASA's newest Mars rover continued its hunt for signs of ancient life this year in Jezero crater—a 28-mile-wide impact basin that was likely once filled with water. The rover spotted a few surprising features as it trekked across the crater’s floor, such as thin purple coatings on some rocks that are reminiscent of a kind of rock varnish formed on Earth by microbes. The rover has also been making steady progress on its rock collection, scooping up 14 samples that will be cached on Mars's surface for a future mission to collect. In September, the rover embarked on the much-anticipated exploration of an ancient river delta at the crater's edge. NASA and the European Space Agency are continuing to develop plans for returning the samples, which will require multiple spacecraft, including a pair of helicopters.
Legendary Spanish shipwreck discovered on Oregon coast
Remains from a 17th-century Spanish galleon were identified on Oregon’s northern coast. They likely belong to Santo Cristo de Burgos, a ship that was sailing from the Philippines to Mexico in 1693 when it veered off course and vanished.
Known as the “Beeswax Wreck” for the blocks of beeswax carried by the vessel that still occasionally wash up on shore, the lost galleon has been a part of local lore for centuries. Remnants of the ship’s hull, however, remained unidentified until researchers analyzed timbers found in a sea cave near Astoria and revealed that they were crafted from a type of hardwood used to build ships in Asia during the 17th century: a perfect match for the missing Santo Cristo de Burgos.
Resurrecting dying organs
In a medical first, scientists at Yale University preserved the function of multiple pig organs including the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys a full hour after the animals had died. The research could one day help extend the viability of human organs intended for life-saving transplants, thousands of which are discarded annually because they aren’t immediately preserved.
Normally organs must be harvested right after the heart stops pumping blood for them to be viable. But a sapphire-blue solution called OrganEx developed by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan and his team allowed them to restore basic organ functions well after the tissues had last received fresh blood. The researchers induced cardiac arrest in pigs and left the dead bodies at room temperature for an hour before infusing their blood with OrganEx, which contains amino acids, vitamins, metabolites, and 13 additional compounds. Using a machine, they circulated the mix for six hours and noticed signs of revival in the dying organs—heart cells began beating, liver cells absorbed glucose from blood, and DNA repair resumed.
Still, Sestan urges caution. “We can say that the heart is beating, but to what extent it’s beating like a healthy heart—that will require more studies.” The next steps will include transplanting OrganEx-treated organs into live pigs to see how well they function.
Tonga volcano erupts with surprising intensity
In January, a submarine volcano in the Kingdom of Tonga, known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, unleashed an eruption unlike any seen in recent decades. The blast sent a pressure wave around the globe multiple times and caused towering tsunami waves to crash on shores near and far. Even before the volcanic dust settled, scientists were racing to gather data about the eruption's oddities with the hope of better understanding the mechanism behind this surprisingly powerful blast and cascade of effects. "Everything so far about this eruption is off-the-scale weird," says volcanologist Janine Krippner, who was with the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program when the event occurred.
The eruption excavated some 2.3 cubic miles of rock from the seafloor, making it the largest volcanic blast in a century. The explosion also unleashed avalanches of hot ash and volcanic rubble known as pyroclastic flows that raced along the seafloor for at least 50 miles.
New snail species are the world's smallest
While searching for animals in the soil in two spots in Southeast Asia, scientists discovered a handful of new snail species, two of them smaller than any seen before. They dubbed one Angustopila psammion, a fitting name, as “psammion” derives from the ancient Greek word for “grain of sand.” This species lives within the walls of Vietnamese caves and measures only 0.6 millimeters in diameter. Many hundreds could fit on a single U.S. quarter.
The other snail is ever-so-slightly larger and was unearthed in a Laotian limestone gorge. It has a shell with pointy projections adorned with mud-like beads, which are likely fecal pellets, hence its name, A. coprologos, from the Greek for “dung gatherer.”
UN report reveals climate change’s toll on our health
For decades, scientists have warned of the coming risks of climate change. But some of the dangers we face are already here, including a direct impact on human health, according to a landmark report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By 2100, three-quarters of all humans on Earth could regularly suffer extreme heat stress, the report found. People also face increased lung damage from air pollution and more vector-borne diseases from blood-feeding bugs, such as mosquitos and ticks, as they spread to new areas. The report’s authors stress the need to quickly and aggressively cut emissions and adapt to a hotter world before climate-related health threats get even worse.
A bobcat eating python eggs shows 'Everglades fighting back'
Burmese pythons have been overrunning the Florida Everglades for decades. These invasive animals are so ecologically destructive in part because they have no native predators—or so scientists thought.
For the first time, biologists have observed a native species, a bobcat, raiding a python nest and eating its eggs. Later, when the bobcat returned to find the snake guarding its nest, the cat took a swipe at the reptile. “When you get interactions like this and see the native wildlife fighting back, it’s like a ray of sunshine for us,” says Ian Bartoszek, an ecologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “In 10 years of tracking snakes, I can count on one hand the number of observations” of native animals standing up to the reptiles. The confrontation could represent a step toward restoring ecological balance in the python-troubled Everglades.
A new space telescope achieves the deepest view of the universe
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the giant infrared instrument now parked a million miles from Earth, spent half of 2022 getting ready to take its first images. In July, those images were finally presented, revealing an unprecedentedly detailed view of the cosmos. One image of distant galaxies magnified by the gravity of other galaxies in the foreground represents “the deepest view of the universe ever,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator at NASA. JWST’s other breathtaking images include a now-iconic view of the Carina Nebula and a striking picture of Neptune’s rings. The telescope is now busily working through a long list of planned observations, exploring everything from the oldest galaxies to the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.
Antarctica’s ice shelves unexpectedly fracture
West Antarctica, the wedge of the continent that sits directly south of Argentina, holds enough ice to raise sea levels by 10 feet. Some of that ice is bound to melt as climate change bakes the South Pole, but climate scientists still don’t know how much will melt—or how fast. But early this year, researchers saw ominous hints that a large collapse could happen soon. A major ice shelf—a protrusion of ice floating on the sea that prevents the ice sheet above from slipping into the ocean and melting—cracked suddenly and unexpectedly. The rupture could kick off a destructive chain reaction causing the ice shelf to “shatter into hundreds of icebergs, just like your car window,” the first step in a major collapse, says researcher Erin Pettit.
Ancient tooth adds to the story of mysterious human relative
All the confirmed remains of Denisovan, a mysterious relative to the Neanderthals, could easily fit in a sandwich bag: a few teeth, a pinky bone, a fragment of skull, and a partial jaw. And until recently, they were all from just two sites, one in Siberia and another in Tibet. But in May, scientists announced the discovery of a likely Denisovan molar from a cave in Laos, thousands of miles from all other Denisovan finds. The find reveals the hominin’s stunningly varied range and ability to survive in a variety of climates. “It kind of makes me think about how similar they are to us,” says study author Laura Shackelford, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We’re incredibly flexible—that’s sort of the hallmark of modern humans.”
Enormous stingray sets record for largest freshwater fish
Since 2005, National Geographic Explorer Zeb Hogan has been searching the world to find the world’s largest fish. In mid-June, a team he leads in Cambodia got a call from a fisherman named Moul Thun who was fishing in the Mekong River when he accidentally snagged a giant freshwater stingray “much bigger” than any he had previously seen.
Upon arrival, the researchers found this female ray measured 13 feet from snout to tail and weighed in at a whopping 661 pounds, making it the largest freshwater fish ever recorded, certified by Guinness World Records on June 24.
New details of the dino-killing impact
Sixty-six million years ago, the trajectory of life took a sudden, violent turn when a 6.5-mile-wide asteroid slammed into the waters off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The apocalyptic blow ushered in a mass extinction that felled more than three-fourths of all species, including all the dinosaurs except birds. It left behind a gigantic undersea crater known as Chicxulub.
In February, researchers studying a set of fossil fish that died in the blast concluded the asteroid struck during spring in the Northern Hemisphere. In March, scientists provided another glimpse of the asteroid’s devastation: Within minutes of the impact, rocks that formed in the extreme temperatures rained down more than a thousand miles from the crater’s center. And in August, researchers announced that they had found signs of another possible undersea crater off the coast of West Africa that is about the same age as Chicxulub—perhaps evidence that a fragment of the incoming asteroid broke off and smashed into Earth separately.
Microplastics found in the human body
Plastic fragments have been found at the heights of Mount Everest and in the deepest depths of the ocean—and now, for the first time, within the blood and lungs of the human body. In donated blood, researchers found nanoplastics, less than one micrometer across, which could have been inhaled or eaten. They also found plastic fibers as long as two millimeters in the lungs of surgical patients. It’s still not clear how, or even whether, these plastic bits can harm our health—but “yes, we should be concerned,” says ecotoxicologist Dick Vethaak. “Plastics should not be in your blood.”
Volcanic eruption in Iceland heralds decades of activity
For nearly 800 years, the volcanoes of Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula had slumbered. But they awoke in 2021, spewing lava for six months—and this year they began yet another fiery fit. Volcanism in this region sleeps and wakes in cycles, and the second outpouring of lava in less than a year suggests the island nation may be in for decades of volcanic activity.
Each new eruption is like a window into our planet's inner workings, and scientists have already begun to explore the depths beneath Iceland, one of the few places in the world where part of the mid-ocean ridge stands above the sea. Along this boundary, tectonic plates pull apart, causing bits of hot mantle to well up and erupt at the surface. The island also sits atop a searing hot plume of rock that helps drive eruptions. By studying these phenomena, researchers hope to better understand the forces that shaped the country’s landscape.
New evidence suggests spiders can dream
Daniela Roessler, an ecologist the University of Konstanz, normally does field research in the Amazon rainforest. But during the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020, she turned her attention to the jumping spiders that inhabit a field near her home in Trier, Germany. She noticed that sometimes when the little arachnids snooze, they dangle from a thread of silk with legs curled—and occasionally jerk as if in the throes of a revery.
“The way they twitched just made me think of dogs and cats dreaming,” Roessler says. So she set up a lab to observe them, and the resulting study published this year reveals that jumping spiders experience a sleep-like state with rapid eye movements similar to those observed in dreaming humans.
Africa’s oldest dinosaur fossil discovered
In August, a research team funded by the National Geographic Society unveiled a remarkable fossil: the oldest definitive dinosaur discovered in Africa. The ancient creature, known as Mbiresaurus raathi, lived about 230 million years ago during the Triassic period, and it was found within rocks in Zimbabwe known as the Pebbly Arkose Formation. Though Mbiresaurus is one of the earliest known ancestors to sauropods, the group that includes the iconic long-necked giants such as Brontosaurus, it was itself no giant. Experts estimate the animal would have been less than two feet tall at the hip, revealing the humble evolutionary beginnings of a group of animals that would later include the largest creatures ever to walk on land.
A synthetic human microbiome built from scratch
Stanford University researchers revealed a complex synthetic microbiome that they constructed from scratch. When transplanted into mice free of microorganisms, the 119 species of bacteria, all of which can be found in the human gut, remained stable and even resisted pathogens.
Scientists’ knowledge about gut microbiota has mainly come from transplanting the full microbial community in human feces to animals or other humans. But there are no tools to manipulate the species in stool samples, which each contain hundreds if not thousands of microbial species that vary widely between individuals.
The new synthetic microbiome is broadly representative of the human gut microbiota, according to the Stanford team. And scientists can modify this microbial community by adding or removing species to understand how they influence human health—a complex process that could result in new ways to treat diseases. Additional iterations of the synthetic microbiome may be coming as other researchers tinker with this colony, adding or eliminating species to study different disorders and to design new therapeutics.
‘Miracle plant’ thought to have been eaten into extinction possibly rediscovered
The plant was literally worth its weight in gold, stored alongside precious metals in the imperial treasury of ancient Rome. Silphion, a flowering plant thought to cure illness and make food taste extraordinary, was so popular in the ancient Mediterranean world that it was likely eaten into extinction nearly 2,000 years ago. Or was it?
Mahmut Miski, a professor of pharmacognosy (the study of medicines derived from natural sources) at Istanbul University believes he’s rediscovered the storied plant in a small stone enclosure in the Turkish countryside. And while its propagation and appearance are consistent with ancient descriptions of the plant, the true test came when the modern plant was used as an ingredient in ancient recipes calling for silphion, resulting in pleasant flavors that may have indeed delighted the Romans. “Finding the original silphion, and experiencing ancient recipes afresh with it, is a kind of Holy Grail,” says ancient cooking expert Sally Grainger.
Three new snake species discovered in graveyards
Biologist Alejandro Arteaga and his colleagues were traveling through the cloud forests of Ecuador in November 2021 looking for toads. They stopped in a small town and were welcomed in by a friendly woman whom they learned had seen odd snakes slithering around a graveyard.
The researchers, intrigued by the sightings, searched the area and discovered three new colorful snake species—two within the soft soil of the hillside graveyard and a third nearby. All three species, described in a scientific paper this year, are ground snakes of the genus Atractus, a group of secretive soil-dwellers that remains little understood. The biologists plan to name the new species as follows: A. discovery, which has especially small eyes and a yellow belly with a black line; A. zgap, which has a yellow belly with no line; and A. michaelsabini, which is “the chubbiest of the lot,” Arteaga says.
Stunning ancient artwork found at site attacked by ISIS
Archaeologists digging in the ruins of an ancient palatial gate destroyed by ISIS discovered stunning artworks behind a sealed door last opened some 2,600 years ago. A joint Iraqi-American team found seven carved stone panels dating to roughly 700 B.C. Believed to have originally come from the Southwest Palace of the ancient city of Nineveh, near modern Mosul in northern Iraq, the panels likely depict the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s military campaigns. Similar panels from the palace are considered a turning point in the history of art and are a highlight of the British Museum’s collections.
“The land is just full of antiquities,” says Zainab Bahrani of Columbia University. “It's full of ancient sites. And there is no way that you can erase all that history.”
Unraveling the ‘dark matter’ of the protein universe
Big tech companies took major steps this year to reveal the building blocks of life. Facebook’s parent company Meta and DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, both released databases of hundreds of millions of protein structures—many of them previously unknown to science. The companies used artificial intelligence to predict the shapes of these proteins, a tool that could help scientists understand their functions and aid the development of new drugs.
Researchers supplied the models with sequences of known proteins so the AI systems could learn patterns and generate accurate 3D structures. Meta also used models to fill in the blanks in protein sequences that were missing amino acid units before predicting their structures.
In just two weeks, Meta’s system predicted the structures of more than 600 million proteins from viruses, bacteria, and other microbes. The protein data are publicly accessible via Meta’s ESM Metagenomic Atlas. Meanwhile, DeepMind predicted the structure of about 220 million proteins found in about a million different species, including plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria.