National Museum of Natural History

10 Popular Scientific Discoveries from 2020

Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History sequenced the genomes of 363 bird species in 2020. (Brian Schmidt, Smithsonian)
Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History sequenced the genomes of 363 bird species in 2020. (Brian Schmidt, Smithsonian)

This year was one of the strangest in recent history. But through all of the challenges of 2020, scientists at the Smithsonian and around the world continued to unravel the mysteries of our planet and the life it supports. From inky deep sea fish to velcro-like feathers, here are some of 2020’s most popular discoveries involving scientists from the National Museum of Natural History.

There is hope for a sustainable ocean

Hundreds of fish under blue water.
Scientists report that ocean habitats and populations can recover over the next 30 years if the right targets are met. (Alexander Vasenin)

Communities around the world depend on oceans for food and income, but harvesting, climate change and pollution threaten marine ecosystems and species with extinction.

A large group of scientists including the Smithsonian’s Nancy Knowlton compiled case studies about how ocean environments and populations have rebounded and responded to changes in human activity over the past few decades. They concluded that it is possible to sustainably rebuild ocean populations within the next 30 years if the necessary actions are implemented and made a priority at local and international scales. In their Nature paper, the group also provided a roadmap for what these actions might look like, breaking them into categories such as protecting and restoring habitats, adopting sustainable fishing measures, reducing pollution and mitigating climate change.

After dogs diverged from wolves, they stuck by our sides

A boy and a dog sit next to a body of water.
Scientists used DNA from almost 11 thousand years ago to learn about the history of dog domestication.

While some researchers planned for the future, others looked to the past. The Smithsonian’s Audrey Lin and an international team of researchers sequenced ancient genomes of 27 dogs from up to 10.9 thousand years ago to learn about the pup-ulation history of our furry companions.

In a Science paper, the team makes the case that dogs all have one common ancestor without much genetic influence from wolves after the initial domestication. By analyzing the dog genomes alongside human genomes from similar time periods and locations, the researchers also found that the migrations of some dogs matched those of humans. DNA helps researchers track the movements of populations over time, but the geographical origins of dogs remains unknown.

The skin of deep sea fish might be the blackest material in nature

A brown fish on a black background next to a dark fish in water.
Researchers at the Smithsonian dove into the biology behind the ultra-black skin of certain deep-sea fish. (Karen Osborn, Smithsonian)

On the opposite end of the spectrum from domestication, fish in the deep sea have evolved camouflage to hide themselves from predators in the pitch black water.

To avoid detection in the light that bioluminescent organisms use to hunt, certain fish have evolved skin that absorbs more than 99.5% of light. Smithsonian Invertebrate Zoologist Karen Osborn and her team discovered a unique arrangement of the pigment cells in these ultra-black fish. The finding, which the team published in Current Biology, could help engineers design light, flexible ultra-black materials for use in telescopes, cameras, camouflage and other optical technology.

Scientists find the earliest known organism with bilateral symmetry

A red, worm-like animal making a path on the ground.
This illustration of the worm-like Ikaria wariootia demonstrates how it might have created tunnel fossils. (Sohail Wasif)

As life evolved from single-celled organisms into complex forms, different ways to organize a body arose. Humans and most other animals have bilateral symmetry, in which sides of the body are mirrored across a single vertical plane.

This year, Smithsonian postdoctoral fellow Scott Evans and a team of researchers described the earliest known bilaterian in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper. Found fossilized in South Australia, the worm-like Ikaria wariootia had a simple, small body plan and likely created sediment tunnels, which became trace fossils. The discovery provides a link between a group of fossils from more than 550 million years ago and life today.

Ancient footprints help researchers step into life 11,000 years ago

A footprint in dirt next to a green and blue footprint.
Fossilized footprints can tell researchers about the body size, speed of travel and social dynamics of ancient people. (Kevin Hatala, Chatham University)

Just as some scientists study the sediment tunnels of ancient organisms, others use fossilized footprints to learn about more recent ancestors.

Smithsonian researchers Briana Pobiner, Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi joined colleagues to excavate and analyze more than 400 human footprints from the Late Pleistocene — around 11,000 years ago — in Engare Sero, Tanzania. These footprints provide a snapshot that reveals information about body size, walking and running speeds and group dynamics of the people that left them. They published their findings in a Scientific Reports paper.

Velcro-like latching in feathers improves flight

Black and white feathers under a microscope.
Microscopic hooks help prevent overlapping pigeon wing feathers from separating and creating gaps in the wing during flight. (Teresa Feo, Smithsonian)

Anthropologists weren’t the only ones studying locomotion this year. Avian researchers also rose to the challenge.

When birds fly, the variable overlap of their feathers allows them to change the shape of their wings during flight. These morphing wings give them exceptional control. New research published in Science by Smithsonian Research Associate Teresa Feo and colleagues from Stanford University shows how a one-directional, velcro-like mechanism helps feathers stay in place and prevents gaps. The team created and flew a feathered biohybrid robot to show how the mechanism assists flight. The findings could help engineers improve aircrafts.

Researchers sequence hundreds of bird genomes

A bird walking on the desert floor.
Scientists have now sequenced the complete genomes of 92.4% of bird families. (Brian Schmidt, Smithsonian)

Birds are quickly becoming one of the best-studied groups of organisms in the world.

As part of a larger effort to sequence the genomes of all living bird species, several Smithsonian scientists joined researchers from around the world in collecting and sequencing the genomes of 363 species. The DNA sequences, published in Nature represent 92.4% of bird families and include 267 newly sequenced genomes. Researchers expect the DNA of so many species to reveal new information about bird evolution and help with conservation efforts, such as bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction.

Scientists film the deepest cephalopod ever recorded

An octopod near the ocean floor.
Video footage from a trench in the Indian Ocean shows a dumbo octopod much deeper than any other recorded cephalopod. (Atlantic Productions for Discovery Channel 2020)

While scientists will soon have the DNA of thousands of bird species at their fingertips, organisms of the deep sea are still poorly known.

In a Marine Biology paper earlier this year, NOAA scientist and Smithsonian curator of cephalopods Michael Vecchione and his colleague Alan Jamieson from Newcastle University in the UK recorded a dumbo octopod (Grimpoteuthis sp) at two record-breaking depths of 18,898 feet and 22,823 feet in a trench of the Indian Ocean. The videos are the deepest reliable records of any cephalopod — a class of marine animals including squids, octopods, cuttlefishes and nautiluses — ever recorded. The footage is the first to show a cephalopod in an ocean trench and extended their known depth range by almost 6,000 feet.

Tuatara genome solves evolutionary mysteries

A small, green reptile on the ground.
Tuataras come from an ancient group of reptiles that predate dinosaurs. Researchers looked to their DNA to learn about the evolution of modern species. (Sid Mosdell)

The tuatara is the only living member of the reptilian order Rhynchocephalia (Sphenodontia), which diverged from the lineage of snakes and lizards about 250 million years ago.

A team of researchers, including the Smithsonian’s Ryan Schott, Daniel Mulcahy and Vanessa Gonzalez, partnered with other scientists around the world to sequence and analyze the unusually large genome of this New Zealand species. By comparing its genome to the DNA of 27 other vertebrates, the scientists provide insights into the evolution of modern birds, reptiles and mammals. Their results, published in the journal Nature, also help solve persistent questions about the species’ place and timing on the evolutionary tree and provide population data that could bolster species conservation efforts. The group worked with the Māori tribe Ngātiwai to design and carry out the study, and the paper’s authors provided a template for future partnerships between researchers and indigenous communities.

Upside-down jellyfish can sting without contact through mucus

A white jellyfish upside-down under water.
New research shows how the upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea xamachana can sting organisms swimming above it. (National Aquarium)

You don’t have to touch a Cassiopea xamachana — an upside-down jellyfish — to get stung. Just swimming near them is often enough.

A research team led by Smithsonian scientists took a closer look at this phenomenon, known as stinging water. The jellyfish, they discovered, expel a mucus that contains spinning balls of stinging cells. They named the blobs of cells cassiosomes in their Communications Biology paper.

Let’s hope 2021 has less of a sting.

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Erin Malsbury

Erin Malsbury is an intern in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Her writing has appeared in Science, Eos, Mongabay and the Mercury News, among others. Erin recently graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with an MS in science communication. She also holds a BS in ecology and a BA in anthropology from the University of Georgia. You can find her at erinmalsbury.com.

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