There’s no getting around it: 2016 has been a wild year.
We’re referring, of course, to the wealth of awe-inspiring, bizarre, and controversial animal videos we’ve shared over the last 12 months, including a few created by National Geographic.
Some of these popular videos have given us rare glimpses at poorly understood animal behaviours—and posed some unique challenges. How do we know a video is real and not altered in some devious way? Did the person doing the filming cause harm by their actions or by their very presence? Does spreading word of a rare animal put it at risk from poachers or others? Is a behaviour being taken out of context, resulting in misinformation and fear?
There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but in our reporting, we’ve done our best to verify what we cover, provide multiple viewpoints, avoid harm, put things in context of science and conservation, and be transparent.
With those things in mind, we look back at the most popular viral animal videos we covered in 2016.
10. ADORABLY GOOGLY-EYED SEA CREATURE CRACKS UP SCIENTISTS
Researchers aboard the research ship Nautilus were combing the sea floor off the California coast in August when they swept their camera across a startling sight some 3,000 feet below the surface: two prominent eyes staring right back at them.
The tiny, purple cephalopod soon had the researchers and crew of the vessel laughing uncontrollably and joking that its “googly” eyes looked “weird” and “fake.”
The so-called stubby squid (Rossia Pacifica), also known as the bobtail squid, is native to the northern Pacific Ocean. While it may look like a Muppet, the stubby squid is real and, as far as deep-sea creatures go, not all that unusual.
9. WATCH THE SURPRISING MOMENT A HUMPBACK WHALE FEEDS NEAR SHORE
Like a dramatic scene from a Hollywood thriller, a humpback whale suddenly emerged from the water just feet from boats, docks, and onlookers in southeastern Alaska, its giant mouth gaping.
Fisherman Cy Williams recorded the scene at Knudson Cove Marina in Ketchikan, Alaska, on May 2. He tried to follow the path of the behemoth under his boat, noting the bubbles rising to the surface.
“It was breathtaking," Williams told Caters TV. "I genuinely thought it was going to hit the boat or the dock as it was so big."
8. RARE VIDEO: MOOSE LOSES AN ANTLER
Safely behind a window, a startled Wyoming family recorded this video we published in March: rare footage of a moose shedding one of its antlers.
A pair of moose antlers can weigh up to 40 pounds, and they’re used by males to attract mates and intimidate rivals. All male moose grow and lose their antlers each year, typically shedding them in late fall and early winter—but it's unusual to catch it on camera.
7. EXCLUSIVE: ‘BEAR BATHTUB’ CAUGHT ON CAMERA IN YELLOWSTONE
Bear Bathtub, a colloquial name given to Yellowstone National Park's own version of a natural swimming hole, can be a busy place for wildlife to drink and cool off. Camera traps rigged to document the comings and goings at the backcountry spring uncovered new insights into bear behaviour—footage we published at the end of March.
6. WATCH WORLD’S DEADLIEST SNAKES BATTLE OVER A FEMALE
As if weaving a friendship bracelet of death, two of the world's most dangerous snakes, black mambas, can be seen twisting around each other during a rarely recorded battle in South Africa.
Kirstie Bowers of Johannesburg, South Africa, captured the video while on safari in Pilanesberg National Park.
"That's a really nice video," Kenneth Krysko, the collection manager of the herpetology division at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in May. "It really shows two males in a classic combat behaviour, with each trying to make the other one submit."
5. AMAZING FOOTAGE: GOATS CLIMBING ON A NEAR-VERTICAL DAM
The next Spider-Man movie may not be premiering until July 2017, but in September, we published a video that may tide you over: jaw-dropping footage of the Alpine ibex scaling a near-vertical rock face on Italy’s Cingino Dam.
The Alpine ibex’s split hooves and rubberlike soles allow it to stay steady even in the most adverse conditions. But why are these animal acrobats climbing this rock face? They’re after mineral salts on the dam’s stones, which supplement their vegetarian diets.
4. EXCLUSIVE: POLAR BEAR CHASES AND EATS CUB
In February, we unveiled a gruesome and little seen side to polar bears: When times are tough, males cannibalize cubs. The raw video, shot in the summer of 2015 off Canada's Baffin Island during a Lindblad Expeditions trip on National Geographic Explorer, mirrors other scientists’ accounts of polar bear cannibalism.
The phenomenon, long known to Arctic native peoples, has been scientifically studied since the 1980s. Scientists believe that polar bears eat cubs in the late summer and autumn, when seals, their typical prey, are at sea and less available.
“One of the only things that’s left to eat is, in fact, cubs of various ages,” said Ian Stirling, a biologist at the University of Alberta and Environment Canada. “The footage itself is quite rare, but the event probably isn’t.”
3. PENGUIN FIGHTS HOMEWRECKER IN BLOODY BATTLE
When the male penguin of a mated pair returned to their nest to find another male, he went on the offensive—with disastrous consequences for both male birds. This Nat Geo WILD video went viral in early November, resonating with hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Penguins are known for being loyal to their mates. An average of 72 per cent of males in 12 different penguin species return to mate with the same female as the previous year. This usually stems from “nest-site fidelity,” in which males return to the same nest site, and hope females will return as well.
2. WATCH A SEAHORSE GIVE BIRTH TO 2,000 BABIES
Spring is a time of renewal, and March brought us this eye-opening look at thousands of baby seahorses bursting from an adult male’s belly.
When seahorses mate, the female deposits her eggs in a brood pouch on the male’s front-facing side, and the male fertilises them internally. He then carries the eggs in his pouch until they hatch in a cloud of up to 2,000 babies. However, fewer than five out of every thousand baby seahorses survive to adulthood.
1. MOTHER RAT SAVES BABY FROM SNAKE
One of our most popular stories of the year captures maternal instinct in action: a mother rat fiercely struggling with a snake to save her baby.
In July, we spoke with University of Miami biologist Dana Krempels about the video, and she pointed out that the snake probably wasn’t big or tough enough to take on the adult rat.
"Rats can be pretty ferocious—they are predators themselves and can kill things," she says. "It's a good thing rats aren't bigger, or we would be in trouble.”
Delaney Chambers, Brian Clark Howard, and Stefan Sirucek contributed to reporting.
Michael Greshko writes online science news stories on everything from animal behaviour to space and the environment.