Animals

Purple Squid, Mega-Croc and Other Critters That Charmed Us in 2016

Our list of animals that captured the imagination this year has something for everyone.

It's that time of year again. Year-end, when people like to make (and hopefully read) lists. If 2016 taught us nothing else about the animal kingdom, it's that surprise and wonder are givens, old things can be new again, and new species can pop up by the thousands.

Here are some of the critters that wowed us this year. We hope you enjoyed reading about them as much as we enjoyed writing about them. Here's hoping 2017 is just as kind to animal lovers. For now, enjoy this walk back through 2016:

To kick things off, here's a little fella everyone really loved. This Stubby squid (Rossia pacifica) made a splash in August when it was spotted by a remotely operated vehicle patrolling the seafloor for the scientists from Nautilus Live.

Only a couple of inches long fully grown, the purple wonder, despite its innocent looks, is actually a clever predator. It digs into the sand, leaving just its eyes sticking out, and waits to haul in unsuspecting shrimp with its tentacles.

Who can forget the tardigrade? Sometimes called "water bears," tardigrades come in more than 1,000 species and are considered among the hardiest creatures on Earth. Just more than 1 mm long, with eight legs, these microscopic creatures are everywhere – underneath moss on land, in the ocean, on every continent, in all climates. They can withstand boiling water and absolute-zero temperatures and are the only animals known to have survived in the vacuum of space.

What put them in the news early this year was the finding that one of its kind was frozen for 30 years and then revived, whereupon the tiny wonder went on to reproduce after its long slumber. You can read more about that here.

Arabian sand cats (Felis margarita harrisoni) like this little critter really captured hearts when we wrote about them in August. The elusive creature – ranked "near threatened" on IUCN's "red list" of threatened species – was seen for the first time in a decade, in the United Arab Emirates, when three individuals of the species were photographed by Shakeel Ahmed, of The Environment Agency.

These cute, shy animals can handle the heat and the cold, as temperatures in their desert homes fluctuate wildly. About a foot tall and three feet long, weighing 4 to 8 pounds, Arabian sand cats look a lot like domestic cats. They've also mastered the art of seeming invisibility: They'll burrow into sands to stay cool and the fur on their foot pads means they leave barely any tracks in their wake.

We may be cheating a bit by including a chunk of vomit in a year-end list of animal stories we loved. However, it was vomit from a whale, so we think it's fair game. And it's not really vomit, though it's called that colloquially. It's actually a substance called ambergris, an intestinal secretion in sperm whales. It seems fishermen in Oman came upon 176 pounds of ambergris floating in their midst. The find stood to make them rich. Amberbgris has the curious benefit of helping scents such as perfume last longer on human skin. That makes the substance valuable to fragrance companies. In this case, about US $3 million valuable.

Here's a long-lost beast that must have been impressive in its day. January of this year brought news of a fascinating fossil discovery: an enormous ocean-dwelling crocodile that would have been twice the size of anything like it today. Dubbed Machimosaurus rex, the animal weighed at least 6,600 pounds and would have stretched to about 32 feet long.

"The skull itself is as big I am," said the University of Bologna's Federico Fanti, who was on the team that made the discovery. "Just the skull is more than five feet long. It's a massive crocodile."

You thought this huge croc was a big deal, and so did we.

A fish that climbs walls? Er, why not? Mother Nature is full of surprises, after all. Early in the spring, we learned that a species of cavefish in Thailand had been observed walking and climbing walls underwater, behaving a lot like salamanders in the process. Scientists studying the strange fish said anatomical features of its pelvis and vertebrae had previously been seen only in four-limbed vertebrates such as reptiles and amphibians. Neat trick for a fish, no?

In early August, we learned about this crazy creature and the most common question surrounding it. Namely: "What is it?"

Found in a Siberian diamond mine, the mystery mummy was speculated to be either a previously unknown species of dinosaur or something a bit less fantastical -- a wolverine, a young bear or a marten.

The remains were found in Udachny, in the Mirinsky district of the Sakha Republic, Russia, in a mine created by an underground detonation of an atomic bomb in 1974.

Another spring entry that captivated us was the blockbuster dino news that the remains of a pregnant Tyrannosaurus rex had been discovered. About 68 million years old and found in Montana, the fossil contained a special type of bone found only in pregnant female "living dinosaurs" -- birds -- just before birth and during egg laying. Once the egg-laying is finished, the bone is no longer present, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State explained to Seeker.

The mom-to-be was estimated to be between 16 and 20 years old at the time of her death, the circumstances of her passing undetermined. The kicker in all of this? The find could also contain dino DNA.

Some pets are more attention-grabbing than others, and Atlas the rabbit really stood out when we posted a story about him back in February. The seven-month-old continental giant rabbit was taken in by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) when his owner could no longer take care of him.

The SPCA described Atlas as being about the size of a West Highland white terrier, in its call to the internet for a new home for the sizable bunny.

The giant bundle of rabbit did not last long on the open adoption market, however. Good news came just a month later, when the SPCA announced Atlas had found a new home.

March 2016 brought news of a Pleistocene puppy.

It might resemble a giant clod of dirt, in the photo above, but zoom in a bit and you can see the paws of a dog -- a 12,400-year-old dog, according to scientists who found the animal frozen in permafrost in Tumat, in the Sakha Republic of Russia. The remains were found close to a known human settlement area of the same vintage, which caused researchers to suggest the puppy may have been a pet.

Of particular interest to the scientists was the animal's brain, which they reported was 70 to 80 percent intact.

"We can say that this is the first time we have obtained the brain of a Pleistocene canid, Moscow researcher Pavel Nikolsky told the Siberian Times.

We hope you enjoyed this look back. It's time now to move on. We'll see you back here next year!