Inverse Daily

The most WTF science stories of 2020

Nature is weird, animals can be disgusting, and the cosmos is beyond understanding.

Greetings Inverse Daily loyalists, and welcome to the first of our year-end reports.

Each year, around this time, we have the pleasure of looking back through the Inverse archives to single out the best of the best.

Today, we're tackling the most bizarre things we learned about in 2020. These are the types of stories that left us saying "WTF" but also made us think, "Hey, that's pretty cool."

As you consign 2020 to the annals of history, we invite you to remember that nature is truly weird, animals can be disgusting, and the cosmos is beyond understanding.

We've complied a full list of 20 moments from this year, which you can explore here. Below, you'll find just a few of our favorites from the list.

Without further ado, these are the most WTF stories of 2020 ...

This is an adapted version of the Inverse Daily newsletter for December 31, 2020. Subscribe for free and earn rewards for reading every day in your inbox.

Saber-tooth tigers may have been the size of grand pianos

Saber-tooth tigers are right up alongside woolly mammoths as one of the Ice Age's most popular megafauna.

With butcher knife-like teeth hanging from their jaws, ready to tear apart their prey, these tigers have a reputation as one of the most fearsome carnivores to ever share the Earth with ancient humans.

But new research published this March in the journal Alcheringa showed these animals may have been even larger and more intimidating than science had initially believed.

The findings all stem from the discovery of a new Smilodon populator skull, already the largest known member of the saber-toothed family, in Uruguay.

Smilodon populator lived between 1 million and 10,000 years ago — coinciding with the proliferation of ancient human species, including our own, across the globe.

Aldo Manzuetti, a doctoral student in paleontology at Uruguay's University of the Republic and author on the study, told Inverse at the time that these big cats would have had a threatening presence, with muscular bodies, "massive forelimbs and a short tail."

The average Smilodon populator skull is 35 centimeters long, explains Manzuetti. But the skull he and his colleagues found measured close to 40 centimeters in total length, making it significantly larger than any other Smilodon populator skull ever found.

These cats were huge →

But not as big as this guy:

3.2 billion-pixel space camera captures largest photo ever

Say "cheese" for space scientists' newest camera, capable of taking 3.2 billion pixel photographs — the largest single-shot photos ever taken.

Designed to survey the southern sky from Chile's Rubin Observatory for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), this camera will help us peer back into the universe and answer questions like how galaxies evolved and how theories of dark matter mesh with our reality.

But before this super-sensitive camera hits the big leagues, scientists tested it out on some common, Earthly vegetables. Behold the glory.

See the largest photo ever taken →

More cool cameras:

Scientists find the oldest sperm in the world

In a paper published in September, scientists announced their breakthrough discovery, describing how, hidden in a chunk of amber, they uncovered a fossil sperm thought to be 100 million years old.

The sperm, the researchers believe, likely belonged to an ostracod — a subclass of crustaceans — which once thrived in the Earth's oceans during the Cretaceous period.

The discovery beats out the previous record by about 50 million years, which was found in the cocoon of an extinct species of Antarctic worm in 2015.

Fossil sperm cells are notoriously hard to find, owing to the fragility and short lives of the cells. The team stumbled upon this specimen in modern-day Myanmar, fortuitously trapped in amber.

It's also really big →

Somewhat related:

This is a sheep's brain on ketamine

Sheep have a long history of helping solve scientific mysteries about how our bodies and brains work.

In 1996, Dolly made headlines as the first cloned mammal from an adult cell. And in 2020, scientists continued the starry legacy of ovine research when they drugged 12 sheep with ketamine.

In a study published this June in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers performed electroencephalography, or EEG, brain scans on 12 sheep and observed how their brain activity changed under different doses of the dissociative anesthetic and rave drug ketamine.

Their reasoning was not idle. Their experiment could ultimately have huge implications for how scientists go on to understand the dissociative effects, and therapeutic benefits, of this drug in humans.

The team was shocked by what they found, including that brain activity in the cerebral cortex stopped altogether under some dosages.

Drugged sheep could be the future of treatments for depression →

More drugs:

Florida lizard breaks record for largest poo ever recorded in a living animal

Feasting on greasy pizza comes with its consequences for humans, but for a curly-tailed lizard on the eastern beaches of Florida, the results were especially crappy.

The female curly-tailed lizard in question, technically known as a Leiocephalus carinatus, was living near a beachside pizza shop.

This unfortunately meant that she developed the proclivity for chomping down on leftover pizza grease, as well as sand. This diet was supplemented by a more traditional meal for curly-tailed lizards: bugs.

A team of University of Florida herpetologists came across the lizard while tracking down reptile samples in Florida's Cocoa Beach.

Their analysis of her revealed something strange. Buried inside the lizard was an unusually large fecal bolus, colloquially known as a ball of poop.

By the time the researchers found the lizard, the bolus had grown to account for 80 percent of the lizard's entire body mass.

It's the largest bolus, relative to body size, ever discovered in a living animal.

Absolute unit →

More record breakers:

"Anti-gravity" experiment breaks physics

There are certain physical phenomena we take for granted, like gravity tugging us down to Earth or the refraction of light coloring the sky blue.

But in research published in September in the journal Nature, a team of physicists broke one of these seemingly "natural" principles: buoyancy.

Using an experimental protocol involving dense liquids, vibrating plates, and toy sailboats, these scientists demonstrated a kind of "anti-gravity," allowing boats to sail upside down with ease.

This discovery could have huge implications for other fields, including chemical engineering.

Is physics broken? →

Unrelated weird stuff:

Looking for more? See the full list of our 20 Most WTF Stories of 2020 here.

Thank you for reading! Stay turned for another special edition Inverse Daily coming tomorrow.

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