Top 10 scientific discoveries of 2009

2009 has been a red-letter year for scientific discovery.  From anthropology to zoology, new finds have abounded, marking the closing year of this first decade of the century with distinction. National Geographic compiled a list of the top 10 most read-about discoveries of 2009.  Adam Seline takes a look at the winners.


An exceptionally rare 13-foot long megamouth shark was caught on March 30 by mackerel fishers off the city of Donsol in Philippines.  The 500-kilogram shark, only the 41st ever observed since the species’ discovery off Oahu, Hawaii in 1976, was butchered for its valuable meat and prepared as a popular dish called kinuout.  The unfortunate shark represents a very important discovery for marine biology. The highly unusual species was so distinct from other sharks that it has been classified into an entirely new family and genus. Like the whale shark, the megamouth is a filter feeder that preys on tiny animals much as baleen whales do.


Thousands of teeth from as early as 2500 years ago examined from collections in Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have been found to indicate that ancient peoples of Mesoamerica went to early “dentists” to decorate their teeth with engravings, grooves, and semiprecious gemstones. This practice was apparently not symbolic of social class, but was rather a widespread practice in early Mesoamerican culture.


Nine alien species of giant snake threaten ecological catastrophe if they establish themselves in the US, the entire southern third of which is vulnerable. Two species of snakes have already established themselves in Florida. The most populous species, the Burmese python, has the potential to spread across much of the southern US.  Several of the species have been known to attack and kill people. Such attacks are rare, and represent a minimal risk compared to the overall ecological threat the reptiles pose.


The finding that the world’s biggest snake was a massive anaconda-like beast that dwelt in sweltering tropical rain forests about 60 million years ago represents the second appearance on this year’s Top 10 list by giant snakes. Measuring 42 feet in length and weighing 1135 kg, Titanoboa cerrejonesis was truly a monster.


An almost perfectly preserved gold rush-era sternwheeler steam ship was discovered at the bottom of a lake in the Canadian Yukon.  Sinking in a storm in 1901, the A.J. Goddard remains virtually pristine. The crewmen’s boots, kicked off in haste as they abandoned ship, were found on the deck. Fresh firewood was still in the boiler, and cooking and eating utensils were strewn about.  The ship represents an unprecedented find.


Ardipithecus ramidus, or “Ardi”, was identified in October as the oldest human ancestor fossil. Discovered in the Afar desert of Ethiopia, Ardi shows an unexpected mix of advanced characteristics and of primitive traits seen in much older apes that were unlike chimps or gorillas. The skeleton offers insight into what the last common ancestor of humans and living apes might have been like. Radiometric dating of two layers of volcanic ash that tightly sandwiched the fossil deposits revealed that Ardi lived 4.4 million years ago. All of mankind’s previously known hominid ancestors walked upright on two legs, like humans. But Ardi’s feet, pelvis, legs, and hands suggest she was a biped on the ground but a quadruped when moving about in the trees.  Wear patterns and isotopes in Ardi’s teeth suggest a diet that consisting of fruits, nuts, and other forest foods.


A specimen of a Worcester’s buttonquail, thought to be extinct and known only through painted representations, was discovered and photographed in the Philippines.  The buttonquail was evidently then sold and eaten.  This may be the last gasp of the species, but the buttonquail is from a “notoriously cryptic and unobtrusive family of birds,” according to the nonprofit Birdlife International, so the species may yet survive undetected in other regions.


A new cloud type has been identified, the first time a new type has been identified since 1951.  Nicknamed “Jacques Cousteau clouds” by their discoverer Gavin Pretor-Pinney after their resemblance to a turbulent ocean observed from below, the new cloud type has likely never been identified due to its extreme rarity.


The 6-inch Pacific barreleye (Macropinna microstoma) has been known since 1939, but only from mangled specimens dragged to the surface by nets.  We now have photographs o the very first live specimen ever observed.  Described by TV’s Stephen Colbert as the “craziest fucking thing I’ve ever heard”, the bizarre-looking fish has a head like a fighter-plane cockpit, with highly sensitive, barrel-like eye topped by green, orb-like lenses.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) discovered the fish alive off California’s central coast.  It is the first specimen of its kind to be found with its soft transparent dome intact.


Darwinius masillae, or “Ida”, the 47-million-year-old fossil represents a key link species in the chain of primate evolution.  Ida bridges the evolutionary split between higher primates such as monkeys, apes, and humans and their more distant relatives such as lemurs. The lemur-like skeleton features several primate-like characteristics, such as grasping hands, opposable thumbs, clawless digits with nails, and relatively short limbs.  Ida is incredibly well preserved. Scientists were able to examine fossil evidence of fur and soft tissue and even picked through the remains of her last meal: fruits, seeds, and leaves.