12 of the most surprising nature stories from 2014

A rock in Death Valley National Park leaving a "trail" under an icy pond surface.

Mike Hartmann

What an amazing year for wilderness --both in good and strange ways. In addition to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and finally gaining protections for incredible places across the country, we also witnessed some rather unexpected stories from nature.

Here are 12 of the most surprising nature stories from the year:

1. Mystery of moving stones at Death Valley finally solved

For decades, scientists have speculated about the hundreds of heavy rocks at Death Valley National Park that appear to leave "trails" stretching for hundreds of yards across the surface of its remote Racetrack Playa. This year, researchers who bravely embarked upon “the most boring experiment ever" finally solved the puzzle - and boy is it surprising. In the hottest place on the planet the answer is ice. “Science sometimes has an element of luck,”said lead paleobiologist Richard Norris. “We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person.” What they saw was thin sheets of ice on the surface of a shallow pond that had formed on the playa. They broke up into large floating panels as they melted, and slight winds push them against the rocks, very slowly forming trails in the mud underneath the ice. It may be years before these precise conditions move the rocks again, especially because of climate change.


2. Lone wolf traveled 450 miles to Grand Canyon - and may have been killed

A gray wolf roamed far to visit northern Arizona this year -  the first to do so since wolves vanished from the area in the 1940s. Scientists collected a sample of feces in Kaibab National Forest leading to a DNA test confirming it was a three-year-old female from the northern Rocky Mountains. Long treks are not uncommon for wolves, but this lone wolf dubbed "Echo" still dared to go where none other had before. Sadly, it was mistaken for a coyote and shot by a hunter in Utah in late December. (photo: Kramer, Gary / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)


3. Another ancient village discovered in Petrified Forest National Park

Arizona’s Petrified Forest now has its second ancient village, both of which are around 1,300 years old. This summer, archaeologists found a match to the 50-dwelling settlement they discovered last year. Like the first, it was built into sand dunes and showcases remnants of brown ceramic pottery and serrated stone points. The archeologists believe their size supports the theory that during their periods, ancient people began living in larger structures for longer periods of time, perhaps also beginning to grow food and make pottery. The park has doubled in size because of a bill passed by Congress a decade ago, sparking new findings. (photo: NPS)


4. Rare ocean creatures spotted in North Pacific

The North Pacific Ocean got warmer this year than it has in at least a hundred years and perhaps ever. But what was truly unexpected was the creatures found there as a result. Fishermen were stunned to find black cod and silvery pomfrets so near the coast, in addition to pilot whales, marlin and wahoo in Southern California and mahi mahi off the Oregon coast. Farther north, thresher sharks that rarely make it north of Vancouver weren’t as unexpected as a skipjack tuna found off the coast of Alaska. But the live ocean sunfish in August took the cake. These 6-foot-long creatures are mostly found in the tropics and are therefore rare even in Washington. What’s more, more than one were spied in the Gulf of Alaska, including with a warm-water blue shark. “No one had ever talked about seeing one alive,” said Wyatt Fournier, research fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (photo of ocean sunfish: Wyatt Fournier / NOAA)


5. Colorado River reaches ocean for first time in more than 50 years

This past spring, the U.S. and Mexico allowed the "American Nile" to reach the sea for the first time in more than 50 years. It was an experiment of large proportions to open the gates at Morelos, the last of 12 major dams which stands 100 miles from the ocean. The Colorado is the life source for 40 million people, not to mention the bastion of agriculture in the Western U.S. “The river was nowhere and everywhere for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf,” Aldo Leopold once wrote in A Sand County Almanac. But after Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, the river's delta dried up. After 15 years of lobbying, and after ecologists had prepared for this spring's release for over a year, scores of scientists from around the world arrived for an event that was pioneering environmentally as well as politically. “There are 260 rivers that cross international boundaries, and this is the first such event in the history of the earth,” the governor of Baja said. (photo: NASA)


6. 35,000 walruses come ashore in Northwest Alaska

In October, Pacific walrus looking for sea ice in Arctic waters came ashore in record numbers in northwest Alaska. An estimated 35,000 walrus were spotted during NOAA's annual arctic marine mammal aerial survey and their arrival was another harbinger of climate change. Observers also saw about 50 carcasses on the beach that may have been killed in a stampede triggered by a polar bear, human hunter or low-flying airplane. Sea ice is used by walruses for giving birth, diving for food and resting between laborious swims. Ice has been receding north beyond shallow waters in recent years, so that walruses riding them are unable to dive deep for their food. This summer also marked the sixth smallest annual low point for sea ice since monitoring began in 1979. (photo: Flickr, South Bend Voice)


7. Physicians prescribe visits to wild lands

Yep, you read that right. Doctors in Washington, D.C. have begun writing prescriptions for their patients to spend time in parks to improve their health. The D.C. Park Rx initiative has not only led to hundreds of such prescriptions but a searchable database of parks linked to Electronic Medical Records (EMR). “Our patients, my colleagues, and I have embraced Park Rx with open arms because we are all ready for a positive approach to chronic disease that poses virtually no risk, but both prevents and treats our modern day plagues like obesity, asthma, and mental illness,” said pediatrician Dr. Robert Zarr.


8. Bighorn sheep born in Arizona

For the first time in 25 years, desert bighorn sheep were born in Arizona's Santa Catalina Mountains, signaling that efforts to reintroduce the species are working. A pair of lambs in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness in Coronado National Forest were spotted back in February, just three months after a group adults were reintroduced to the area. Over-suppression of wildfires, scientists believe, led to less vegetation and subsequent struggle for the species survival. Their return is the result of both wildfire and stricter policies for human visitors. (photo: Karen McCrorey)


9. Oil spill in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

We don’t often hear about oil spills happening in the middle of national parks and monuments, but in this case, an oil well in the aging Upper Valley field contaminated a wash flowing into Utah’s legendary Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument back in March. The spill was discovered by hikers who spied black stains smearing the monument’s picturesque rocks, prompting an investigation by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM suggested that the monument’s mile-long six-inch-deep tar pool may have become more prominent as a result of a flash flood last fall and that the spill may actually have occurred as long as 30 years ago. Unfortunately, cleanup and restoration efforts could increase harm to the area, so it is possible that no or limited actions will be taken - a fact that displeases locals as well as the millions who visit this region annually. (photo: BLM)


10. California condor chick hatches in Utah's Zion National Park

At last! A California condor chick hatched in Utah's Zion National Park this year and was spotted in June. This was the first time a California condor has hatched in the wild in Utah since captive-bred condors began being released in northern Arizona in 1996. Condors were declared extinct in the wild in 1987, but this event meant hope for the largest birds in North America who seem to be reestablishing themselves in southern Utah, part of their once-expansive range. Unfortunately, the first chick that hatched didn't survive, but two others can now be seen flying through northern Arizona. "Although two out of three 2014 condor chicks surviving to fledging remains encouraging, the loss of Utah's first chick is a hard reminder that critters have a tough go of it in the wild," said Chris Parish, the manager of the wild flock.


11. Bird droppings lead to protection of Pacific Islands

The largest protected area in the world was created with the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in September. But - surprise - it was all because of bird droppings. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 was used to claim islands in the Pacific Ocean as territory, which is why we have the authority today to protect these waters. This Act is the result of "guano mania” - a market craze for the best of fertilizers to feed growing populations. Well before synthetic fertilizers were developed in the early 20th century, natural fertilizer made from the droppings of abundant seabirds became known as "white gold," costing a quarter of the price of actual gold at as much as $76 per pound. Islands not only hosted hundreds of thousands of seabirds, but their dry conditions were ideal for drying out guano deposits, so Senator William Henry Seward (who later bought Alaska as Secretary of State under President Andrew Johnson) sponsored a strange bill signed into law by President Franklin Pierce. The five areas claimed were partially mined, later claimed by the Kingdom of Hawaii, and even served as American landing strips for early trans-Pacific air travel. (photo of Masked Boobies at Howland Island NWR: C.Eggleston / USFWS)


12. New frog species discovered in New York and New Jersey

This year a paper was published highlighting an accidental biological discovery made on, above all places, Staten Island. Considered to be a cryptic species hiding in plain sight, the Atlantic Coast leopard frog lives in urban areas near wetlands along the Jersey Shore. The frog was first identified by its unique “chuck, chuck, chuck” call while a zoologist studying the disappearance of the southern leopard frog on Long Island. It had also been heard during a study of blue-spotted salamanders in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in 2003. The connection was made unexpectedly via a YouTube video. "They’re a sensitive species, but we’re finding them in industrial wetlands,"said the Rutgers researcher. There may even be a third similar species, the northern leopard frog. While this may seem to be a fairly common story, it flies in the face of recent estimates that 41% of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction. (photo: PLOS ONE)

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