It’s no secret that 2020 was all kinds of unexpected — for humans and animals.
Due to less human activity amid the coronavirus pandemic, lions and penguins playfully roamed free. Farmed mink appeared to rise from the dead after contracting a mutated strain of COVID-19, and spotted lanterned flies prompted quarantines. “Murder hornets” flew into headlines and a koala climbed into our hearts.
As we approach 2021, reflections on what may have seemed like a never-ending year have begun. Remember the ways nature and animals surprised us in these past 12 months? If not, don’t worry — we have you covered.
Here were some of nature’s top stories from around the world in 2020.
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‘Murder hornets’ in the US
Yes, 2020 brought increased fears around the spread of an invasive, potentially deadly, species: the “murder hornets.”
Asian giant hornets, officially named Vespa mandarinia and nicknamed “murder hornets,” are the world’s largest hornet and can grow up to 2 inches long.
Terrifying in appearance, their stings can deliver a potentially deadly venom, said Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist with the Washington Department of Agriculture. The stings can cause necrosis and lead to organ failure.
The hornets were first spotted in the U.S. in December 2019. So far, the hornets have been contained to one U.S. county and a border area in Canada. In Asian countries, the hornets kill more than a dozen people a year, but wildlife officials say the threat to Americans is low.
Can animal poop ward off ‘murder’ hornets? It helps these honey bees defend against their giant predator.
— Ryan Miller and John Bacon
Mink rise from graves
This year, mink became infected with a mutated strain of COVID-19 — and then appeared to rise from the dead.
In November, Denmark, which produces 40% of the world’s mink fur, planned to cull its entire mink population after human cases were tied to mink infected with a mutated strain of the novel coronavirus.
The hurried nature of the burials, however, meant that the creatures were buried only in shallow graves – and later appeared to emerge from the dead, causing a national panic.
“The gases cause the animals to expand and in the worst cases, the mink get pushed out of the ground,” Jannike Elmegaard, a Danish Veterinary and Food Administration spokesman, told The Associated Press.
— Joshua Bote
Chicago penguins ‘roam free’
In March, after Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium was forced to close amid the pandemic, staff decided to let a few waddling residents out of their enclosures for a field trip.
The aquarium shared videos on Twitter of three penguins checking out exhibits from the other side of the glass.
“Without guests in the building, caretakers are getting creative in how they provide enrichment to animals,” the aquarium said in a statement.
In November, a group of penguins also ventured from Shedd Aquarium to Chicago’s Soldier Field for some exercise.
— N’dea Yancey-Bragg
Koala brings holiday cheer
Christmas came early for one family in Australia — thanks to a special furry ornament found in their tree: a koala.
The McCormick family found the creature tangled in lights and plastic branches in early December. They called the local Adelaide and Hills Koala Rescue, and at first, the hotline operator thought it was a prank call.
“But no, a koala desperate to get in the Christmas spirit had wandered into Amanda McCormick’s house and decided it wanted to be the fairy on the Christmas tree,” Adelaide and Hills Koala Rescue wrote on Instagram.
“Tis the season to be jolly… Koalalalala Lalalala.”
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Spotted lanternfly prompts quarantine
Quarantine wasn’t only prompted because of COVID-19 this year. Meet the spotted lanternfly.
In August, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and Rutgers Cooperative Extension offices across New Jersey received reports of people seeing the spotted lanternfly.
While the spotted lanternfly is no threat to humans or animals, it is known to feed on 70 different types of plants and trees. Multiple New Jersey counties went under quarantine, and residents across the state were asked to do their part in combating the spread of the invasive species by “eliminating” the bug whenever possible.
— Nicholas Polanin, Bridgewater Courier News contributor
Goats take over UK town
The streets of Llandudno, Wales, are usually filled with tourists and locals — but instead in March they saw a herd of mountain goats roam freely.
With people in the village and all of Britain told to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the goats were able to get a little closer than normal and explore.
Residents said their new neighbors were eating leaves and bushes in the town square.
— Ryan Miller
Lions take cat nap on South Africa road
Because of reduced human traffic, a pride of lions from South Africa’s Kruger National Park was caught napping on an empty road in April.
Typically, lions only roam paved roads at night, when the park is closed to guests. But Isaac Phaahla, a communications and marketing manager at the park, told USA TODAY that the “animals must have realized that there has not been traffic since the lockdown” and had taken advantage of the newfound space.
— Joshua Bote
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