The 100 best science photos of 2020

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Science isn’t always cerebral, oftentimes revealing its intricacies with a striking image. And 2020 revealed some science gems that were both stunning and awe-inspiring. From “naked” sharks to secret galaxy mergers to disco tardigrades and more, a trove of incredible science photos came to light this crazy year.

Seal ballet


(Image credit: Copyright Greg Lecoeur/UPY2020)

The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest celebrates stunning photos captured in oceans, lakes and rivers around the world, and this year’s entries were no exception. The competition’s top prize went to French photographer Greg Lecoeur; he dove deep in waters near Antarctica to find a group of crabeater seals cavorting in a blue-tinged, otherworldly scene under an iceberg.

Inside the ‘Pillars of Creation’

(Image credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team)

The “Pillars of Creation” are a vast region of star-forming material located in the Eagle Nebula, about 6,000 light-years from Earth. These tendrils of gas and dust, made colorful by the radiation of bright young stars smoldering within, became a Milky Way landmark thanks to an iconic visible-light image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. This year, NASA scientists shared a new view of the pillars, focusing instead on the infrared radiation normally invisible to human eyes. In the new infrared image (also taken by Hubble), the colorful pillars fade to ghosts of their former selves, revealing a kaleidoscope of newborn stars within the dust.

The disco tardigrade

(Image credit: agide deCarvalho/Olympus Image of the Year Award)

In a contest celebrating microscopy — images of organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye — one of the top prizes went to a colorful photo showing the inner organs of a tardigrade, illuminated with fluorescent dyes. Because tardigrades are mostly colorless, photographer Ainara Pintur, a doctoral candidate in biomedicine at the Basque Center for Biophysics in Spain, used stains to highlight tiny structures making up the microorganism’s digestive system, “including the mouthparts and stomach filled with food,” she said.

Storytime for otters

(Image credit: Pascale Jones/Pairi Daiza)

A family of orangutans and a romp of river otters are the furriest of friends, according to zookeepers in Belgium who purposefully arranged for the primates’ and mustelids’ habitats to intersect. Photos of these curious bedfellows went viral after Pairi Daiza, a privately owned zoo and botanical garden located in Belgium’s province of Hainaut, recently posted them on Facebook.

Welcome to ‘Silkhenge’

(Image credit: Courtesy of Phil Torres)

Remarkable, high-resolution new video has revealed a wild sight: a silk structure in the Amazon that resembles a monumental henge, though teensy, and hence its nickname “Silkhenge.” Rather than human hands, spiders — whose identity has yet to be uncovered — crafted these web towers. New video captured in Peru shows tiny spiderlings breaking out of the structures; that suggests they serve as protective “fences” around spider egg sacs. 

Volcanic lighting

(Image credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Gorgeous displays of lightning lit up Taal volcano in the Philippines, as it shot ash and lava sky-high. Here, a column of ash surrounds the crater of Taal on Jan. 12, with lightning in the background, as seen from Tagaytay city. Scientists are still trying to nail down the exact causes of volcanic lightning, but they have some ideas. One is that static electricity, created as a result of particles rubbing together within dense ash clouds near the ground, produce the electric flashes.

Solar caramel

(Image credit: NSO/NSF/AURA)

In January, the world’s largest telescope took the highest-resolution picture ever of our home star, and it looks just like caramel corn. The incredibly detailed image revealed details about the sun’s roiling magnetic field that previously only showed up as tiny specks. This gorgeous image of the sun was captured with the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), perched high on the Haleakala mountain on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The spiky splendor of frog skulls

(Image credit: Florida Museum/Image by Edward Stanley)

While most frogs have smooth, rounded skulls, a number of species have skulls that are pointy, spiky, extra-wide or shovel-shaped, and scientists recently captured amazing images that showcase this diversity. This year, researchers discovered that some of these unusual skull features appeared multiple times in different frog lineages, separated by millions of years of evolution.

The other side of Doomsday

(Image credit: Rob Robbins/USAP Diver)

A torpedo-like robot named Icefin ventured to Antarctica’s most dangerous glacier, and it found something extremely troubling. The Thwaites glacier, nicknamed the Doomsday glacier because it is melting so fast, is bathing its underbelly in a sea of surprisingly warm water. The water at the sea’s boundary is more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) warmer than freezing, according to news reports. That’s even worse than climate scientists expected. Thwaites glacier not only accounts for a huge amount of sea-level rise, but its floating ice sheets also keep the rest of the glacier from flowing into the sea.

Subway brawl

(Image credit: Sam Rowley)

Two mice dance the tango after a romantic night out in London … is what we wish this photo was about. Actually, this incredible action shot taken by U.K.-based photographer Sam Rowley shows two of the London Underground’s 500,000 resident mice fighting over a scrap of food on a subway platform. In February, the photo won the people’s choice award for the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Cannibal jelly buffet

(Image credit: Jamileh Javidpour/University of Southern Denmark)

Warty comb jellies (Mnemiopsis leidyi) are an invasive ctenophore — a jellyfish relative — native to the eastern Atlantic Ocean and first introduced to the Baltic Sea in the 1980s. In a May 2020 study, researchers learned that the prolific blobs are able to survive through extensive low-food periods by cannibalizing their own larvae. Not only did the study authors witness the jellies devouring their own young in a laboratory experiment (adults ate their babies after fewer than 36 hours without other prey), but the researchers also took this incredible photo of a wild warty comb jelly floating through the Baltic with two larvae in its gut.

Fly sex in amber

(Image credit: Jeffrey Stilwell)

About 41 million years ago, two long-legged flies had just begun an amorous tryst when they were caught fast in sticky sap, which eventually hardened around their joined bodies to form an amber tomb. The last moments of these mating flies, now locked in amber, offer a fascinating window into life in the Eocene epoch (around 55 million to 34 million years ago). This remarkable “frozen behavior” is one of many amber specimens that scientists recently discovered this year in Australia.

Snot bombs away

(Image credit: Allen Collins and Cheryl Ames)

Scientists finally discovered the source of mysterious “stinging water” that zaps the skin of people swimming in tropical lagoons around the world: A mix of jellyfish mucus and venom-filled “bombs.” The upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea xamachana) rests top-down on the ocean floor and secretes viscous mucus into the water above. When researchers examined the snot under the microscope, they saw tiny spheres spinning around in the fluid. Stinging cells coat the spheres and deposit venom on creatures that run into them.

The first sight of COVID

(Image credit: NIAID-RML)

It’s a sadly familiar sight now: One of the first-ever images of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that has sickened more than 77 million people and killed over 1.7 million in an outbreak that began in Wuhan, China. Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) imaged samples of the virus and cells taken from a U.S. patient infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.

The animal that doesn’t breathe

(Image credit: Stephen Douglas Atkinson)

The microscopic parasite H. salminicola looks like a bunch of blue sperm with alien-like eyes. It’s actually something even more bizarre: the first known animal on Earth that does not breathe oxygen. The bacteria lurks inside fish and worms and is known for infecting salmon with the white-pocked ailment called “tapioca disease.” Scientists looked at the peculiar parasite’s genome for the first time this year, and they discovered it had lost all its genes related to respiration.

Bursts in the ice

(Image credit: Jamie Yang, IceCube Collaboration)

A longstanding mystery has plagued physicists for two decades: Why do tiny, ghostly subatomic particles known as neutrinos have mass? The reigning physics model can’t explain it, but the answer could be found beneath the Antarctic ice. While ordinary, low-energy neutrinos zing through the planet all the time without banging into anything, high-energy neutrinos might bang into a detector buried in the coldest continent’s ice, known appropriately as IceCube. As they ping the detector, they would leave a telltale signal known as a “Zee burst,” according to researchers. This illustration shows what IceCube would look like without all the ice.

Dancing with the star

(Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

Einstein’s theory of general relativity was proven right (again!) this year, thanks to the wobbly dance of a high-speed star swirling around the monster black hole at the center of our galaxy. After watching the star — named S2 — orbit the galactic center for 27 years, researchers concluded that the star does not have a fixed elliptical orbit as predicted by Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, but rather “dances” around the black hole in a pattern that resembles a rosette drawn using a spirograph. (Einstein predicted this pattern more than 100 years ago.)

Lizard lays #1 number two

(Image credit: Edward Stanley, Florida Museum)

A greasy, sandy diet left a northern curly-tailed lizard with a belly distended by a heavy ball of unpassable poop. The mass was so large that it made up nearly 80{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the animal’s body weight — a record-breaking body-to-poop ratio, according to a Florida biologist. (Sadly, the lizard had to be euthanized with the poo ball still blocking its stomach.)

Lake Narnia?

(Image credit: Reuters/Lindsay DeDario/Newscom)

Houses along the shore of Lake Erie resembled ice sculptures last winter, after powerful wind gusts doused the homes with chilly lake water and freezing temperatures froze the moisture into an icy covering. Following 48 hours of strong winds and frigid chill, several feet of ice accumulated on the exteriors of three houses at Hoover Beach in Hamburg, New York. The ice was so thick that the houses were dark inside, one resident complained.

The oldest ‘social network’

(Image credit: Sarah Collins (Cambridge University))

Rangeomorphs are thought to be some of the earliest non-microscopic animals on Earth, spreading prolifically during the end of the Ediacaran period (roughly 635 million to 541 million years ago) despite having no noticeable mouths, guts, reproductive organs or means of moving around. How did they thrive so long? Apparently, they had a “social network” of string-like filaments connecting them, a new study of hundreds of Canadian rangeomorph fossils found. Those filaments stretched anywhere from a few inches to several feet long, and could have helped rangeomorphs exchange nutrients or even clone themselves through asexual reproduction.

A ‘cosmic reef’ blooms in space

(Image credit: NASA, ESA and STScI)

Young stars blaze to life in a nearby galaxy, repainting their cosmic neighborhood with fiery blooms of gas and radiation. This Hubble Space Telescope image — taken in honor of the telescope’s 30th anniversary in space — captures just another day in the life of two young nebulas (one red, one blue) in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 163,000 light-years away. The star at the center of the blue nebula in the bottom left corner of the image is about 200,000 times brighter than our sun, NASA scientists said. Radiation from those stars causes the surrounding gas to glow in stunning colors.

The world’s oldest roaches

(Image credit: Lenka Podstrelená, Sendi et al. Gondwana Res 2020 (Copyright Elsevier 2020))

It’s rarely a treat to discover a cockroach at work, let alone two, but archaeologists were stoked this year to find a pair of cockroaches trapped in amber, apparently dating to the days when Tyrannosaurus rex walked the Earth. The roaches are 99 million years old, the authors of a new study wrote, making them about 30 million years older than the next-oldest cockroaches in the fossil record.

The ‘all terminator’ moon

(Image credit: Andrew McCarthy)

Shadows creep down the banks of every crater on the near-side of the moon, highlighting the pockmarked face of Earth’s gravitationally-bound buddy with a clarity never before seen. According to photographer Andrew McCarthy, who posted the stunning image to his Instagram in April, this lunar view is actually “impossible.”

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