1. Parrots poked holes in accepted theories
Scientists strapped tiny goggles on a parrotlet, then had it fly through a laser. When the results came out, the scientists realized the vortexes of air moved differently than established scientific theories would have predicted. “All three models we tried out were very inaccurate because they make assumptions that aren’t necessarily true,” Stanford University graduate student Diana Chin tells Wired.
2. Sheep and goats predict volcanic eruptions
By tracking goats and sheep in Italy, German scientist Martin Wikelski discovered the livestock could predict volcanic eruptions four to six hours before they hit. They’d wake up and pace nervously, then move to safe areas—the more vegetation a spot had, the more likely it was that lava had missed it before.
3. Leeches reveal which animals are in a forest
In a dense forest, you probably can’t spot all the animals living there. That’s why scientists are turning to leeches and bugs to teach them about the forest’s animals. Parasites contain DNA from the animals they feed on, so researchers hope that studying them will help them study mammal diversity in Papua New Guinea without tracking down the animals themselves.
4. Kingfishers inspired bullet trains
When Japanese engineers invented crazy-fast 200-mile-an-hour bullet trains, they didn’t account for the sonic boom the trains would create when leaving tunnels. To silence their trains, scientists took a cue from kingfishers, whose pointed beaks let them dive into the water without making a splash. With new, long noses, the highly efficient trains are way quieter and finally meet noise standards.
5. Narwhals monitor climate change
Scientists hoping to record the effects of climate change on the frigid waters of Greenland’s Baffin Bay enlisted the help of narwhals, the so-called “unicorns of the ocean” known for their single 9-foot tusks and ability to withstand freezing water. In 2010, University of Washington marine biologist Kristin Laidre and her team attached thermometers and satellite transmitters to 14 narwhals and tracked the whales while they spent the winter in the Bay. The resulting data comprised the most comprehensive collection of water temperature ever recorded for the area.
6. Rats reveal land ᴍɪɴᴇs
In Mozambique, Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries, hidden ʟᴀɴᴅᴍɪɴᴇs left over from decades of ᴄᴏɴꜰʟɪᴄᴛ still dot the landscape, preventing development and slowing economic growth. Luckily, Tanzania-based organization Apopo may have found a four-legged solution. The aid group trains Gambian pouched rats to sniff out ʟᴀɴᴅᴍɪɴᴇs, which are later deactivated. The rats are light enough not to ᴅᴇᴛᴏɴᴀᴛᴇ the ᴍɪɴᴇ and “can reliably check the ground faster than a human with a metal detector,” Zacarias Chambe, an Apopo deᴍɪɴᴇr, tells The Economist.
7. Zebrafish uncover ᴄᴀɴᴄᴇʀ secrets
Surprisingly, zebrafish and humans have a substantial number of genes in common, including APC, a gene associated with colon ᴄᴀɴᴄᴇʀ. The transparent black-and-white minnows also reproduce frequently and develop into adults in a matter of days, allowing scientists like David Jones, a ᴄᴀɴᴄᴇʀ researcher at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, to study their developing cells. “There is no limit to the impact this little fish can have on unraveling the mysteries of human ᴅɪsᴇᴀsᴇ,” Jones tells The Oklahoman.
8. Ground squirrels aid astronauts
Weightlessness can have a profound effect on the human body. Astronauts who return from even brief visits to space suffer from significant muscle and ʙᴏɴᴇ loss and spend weeks regaining their strength. For clues into how to remedy this issue, scientists are looking closely at the Artctic ground squirrel, a furry rodent that awakens from months’ long hibernation with no noticeable difference in muscle or ʙᴏɴᴇ. “If we can understand how they do it, we can replicate it in humans,” University of Alaska at Fairbanks biochemist Kelly Drew tells The Washington Post.
9. Whales show the secret to longevity
As the longest-living mammal in the world, bowhead whales could hide anti-aging secrets for humans. Researchers believe the key to living up to 211 years old was the whales’ lack of ᴄᴀɴᴄᴇʀ—which is even more impressive given the fact that with 2,000 times as many cells as humans, they should have a much higher ʀɪsᴋ of ᴄᴀɴᴄᴇʀ. Scientists are trying to find a clue in their genomes to what keeps them ticking.