Plants that gamble. Floating creatures in the clouds of alien worlds. An ice-encased military base uncovered by climate change. Our favorite stories of 2016 didn’t necessarily employ the most cutting-edge science—for that, see our breakthroughs of the year—but they were fun, compelling reads that resonated widely with our audience here and on social media. Some of these were our personal favorites; some were our most popular stories of the year. Either way, we hope you’ll enjoy reading them again.
Is death really the end? Not for some genes. This spooky story revealed that hundreds of genes turn on after an animal dies—and many are still active days after death. Even more disturbing, some of these genes are involved in sculpting a developing embryo.
Fairy tales existed long before the Brothers Grimm came around, but even literary scholars may be shocked by just how old some of our favorite stories are. Using methods typically employed by biologists to trace the evolutionary history of species, researchers found that some of the first fairy tales may have originated between 2500 and 6000 years ago. The key to a yarn’s longevity? A story that’s strange enough to be remembered, but not so strange as to defy comprehension.
“Astonishing.” That’s what scientists are saying about the life span of the Greenland shark, which new research reveals can live more than 400 years. The downside? Females aren’t ready to reproduce until they hit the ripe age of 156.
People do it. So do the birds and the bees. And now it appears that plants do it, too. Get your mind out of the gutter—we mean gambling. Our leafy friends, it turns out, roll the dice when it comes to making a tough decision such as where to find nutrients in uncertain circumstances. The findings need more testing, however, so don’t bring your favorite shrub to Las Vegas, Nevada, just yet.
Most life on Earth gets its energy either from the sun or by consuming organisms that do so. But would alien life do the same? A bizarre microbe found deep in a South African gold mine that gets energy from radioactive uranium suggests that life on other planets could feed off of this source as well, especially cosmic radiation raining down from space. In a somewhat related story—and one of our other favorites of the year—scientists found that alien life could thrive in the clouds of failed stars.
Evolution doesn’t just happen over millions of years—it can occur right before our eyes. Such is the case in humans, where genes for height and eye color have evolved relatively rapidly—and a gene that favors cigarette smoking has dwindled in just a single generation.
The Jurassic Park movies have made us fear dinosaurs all over again, but just how threatening was the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex? This story, concerning 66-million-year-old tracks found along an ancient shoreline in Wyoming, reveals that the beast may not have been able to run faster than 8 kilometers (or 5 miles) per hour. That’s slower than a middle-aged power walker, so with a bit of spring in your step, you probably could have avoided becoming a dino’s dinner.
Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but sometimes species show a softer side toward each other. Our favorite example from this year was the remarkable story of a humpback whale that saved a seal from a pack of killer whales. Scientists aren’t sure why it happened, but at the very least they say it should make killer whales think twice about hunting when a humpback is nearby.
A military operation hidden beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. A covert plan known as Project Iceworm. Rising international tensions. These may sound like the ingredients for a James Bond movie, but they’re the real-life details of a Cold War base known as Camp Century. And now a warming world may be bringing them all to light.
Our most popular story of the year addresses one of the biggest mysteries of cell biology: Why do mitochondria—the oval-shaped structures that power our cells—have their own DNA, especially when the rest of the cell contains plenty of its own? A new study may hold the answers—and the clues to several rare and crippling diseases.
*Correction, 3 January, 2:48 p.m.: Item No. 6 in this article has been modified to reflect the fact that not all life on Earth gets its energy from either photosynthesis or by eating other life forms.