Smithsonian Sparks

Interesting and hopeful science stories from the Smithsonian in 2023

January 3, 2024
Ben Marcus
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Image of a gold and green frog with a black background.

The nocturnal arboreal species Agalychnis lemur, which lives between Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, is critically endangered and is among the twelve species of frogs protected by the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC). Image: Steven Paton, STRI.

In fields ranging from animal biology to astrophysics, the Smithsonian has been advancing global science since its founding. In 2023, our scientists made discoveries, wrote articles, and created museum exhibitions with worldwide and long-term impact. Here is a sample of the top Smithsonian science stories of the year, and some cause for hope in the new year: 

Scientists assess extinction risk of more than 8,000 amphibian species worldwide

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientists, in collaboration with global partners, assessed the extinction risk of more than 8,000 amphibian species around the globe and identified 50 threatened amphibian landscapes worldwide. Collectively, these landscapes account for 71 percent of all threatened amphibians, making their conservation critically important. This global effort relied on the data and knowledge of more than 1,000 experts worldwide, including Panamanian scientists. Their results, reported on October 4, 2023, revealed that two out of every five amphibians in the world are threatened with extinction.  

TEMPO launches to monitor pollutants over North America

In 2023 the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) launched TEMPO, the first space-based instrument to monitor pollutants hourly over North America at neighborhood-level resolution. Weather satellites make it easy to track weather patterns across North America, but the same cannot be said about tracking air pollution. While our phones can tell us when it’s going to stop raining to the minute, we do not have the same ability to measure and predict the movement of pollutants in the air as precisely. But on April 7, 2023, everything changed when the SAO’s TEMPO instrument launched into space. This instrument sits over North America and allows scientists to track air pollution in near-real time at a neighborhood-level resolution. It will help us understand the causes and impacts of pollution so we can develop sustainable solutions for the future. The first images from TEMPO were released in August and are a first step in refining TEMPO so it can produce high-quality information in the long term. 

The TEMPO satellite in space.
TEMPO launched into orbit in 2023. © Maxar Technologies.

Scientists find a potentially volcano-covered Earth-sized world

Astronomers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) announced on May 17, 2023, that they discovered an exoplanet, a world beyond the solar system, that may be carpeted with volcanoes and could potentially support life. Called LP 791-18 d, the planet could undergo volcanic outbursts as often as Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanically active body in the solar system. LP 791-18 d orbits a small red dwarf star about 90 light-years away in a southern constellation called Crater, and SAO astronomers estimate the exoplanet is only slightly larger and more massive than Earth. The planet is tidally locked, which means that like our Moon relative to Earth, the same side constantly faces its star. The side facing the star would probably be too hot for liquid water to exist on the surface, but the team suspects that the amount of volcanic activity potentially taking place all over the planet could sustain an atmosphere. These conditions may allow water to condense on the dark side of the planet, creating conditions that could potentially support life.

Exoplanet LP 791-18 d
LP 791-18 d, illustrated here, is an Earth-size world about 90 light-years away.

Diversity increases the likelihood of reforestation success

Forest ecosystems cover almost a third of the land on Earth, supporting most of its terrestrial species and the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Forests are also critical in the fight against climate change. In 2013, scientists and 100 volunteers created BiodiversiTREE to study the effect of reforestation methods by planting 20,000 saplings on former agricultural land near the Chesapeake Bay. In some sections, the scientists and volunteers planted a single species, and in others they planted four or 12 species. Ten years into this 100-year experiment, on May 23, 2023, researchers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center announced new findings that reforested plots with the most diversity were more likely to thrive. These data could have important implications in reforestation efforts worldwide.  

Medium shot of forest with new growth.
A plot with 12 tree species in the forest restoration experiment BiodiversiTREE, planted at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Now in its 10th year, BiodiversiTREE has revealed that more diverse forest restorations are less likely to suffer planting failures. Image: SERC.

Protecting marine life benefits the people living nearby

A new study published on June 22, 2023, led by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists showed that limiting human activity in parts of the ocean can enhance the health of marine environments and the well-being of nearby coastal communities. The researchers not only discovered that marine protected areas (MPAs) with the most stringent fishing restrictions helped sustain fisheries, but they also found a link between marine protections and elevated income and food security in nearby coastal communities. These findings highlight the potential value of these MPAs in achieving multiple sustainable development goals around the world.  

Fisherman casting seine net.
A small-scale fisher throws a net over Rock Cay in Utila, Honduras. Image: Luciano Candisani.

Our scientists discover the oldest decisive evidence of early human relatives butchering each other 

In a new study published on June 26, 2023, researchers from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History identified the oldest decisive evidence of humans’ close evolutionary relatives butchering and likely eating one another. Researchers described nine cut marks on a 1.45 million-year-old left shin bone from a relative of Homo sapiens found in northern Kenya. Analysis of 3D models of the fossil’s surface revealed that the cut marks were dead ringers for the damage inflicted by stone tools. The scientists explained that the cut marks are located where a calf muscle would have attached to the bone—a good place to cut if the goal is to remove a chunk of flesh. But while these marks might indicate the oldest evidence of prehistoric cannibalism, there is not yet enough evidence to claim this with certainty.

Three bones showing cut marks from stone tools.
Close-up photos of three fossil animal specimens from the same area and time horizon as the fossil hominin tibia studied by the research team. These fossils show similar cut marks to those found on the hominin tibia studied. Image: Briana Pobiner, National Museum of Natural History.

Coral successfully cryopreserved and revived for the first time

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute researchers have achieved a breakthrough in the fight to save the world’s coral reefs from climate change annihilation, and it may further the goal of cryopreserving human organs. In a paper published on August 23, 2023, researchers described the first successful technique for cryopreserving and reviving entire coral fragments, which are among the most complex biological systems ever successfully ushered through the cryogenic cooling and thawing process to date. This milestone heralds a new age for cryopreservation and coral conservation; it opens the door to collecting and preserving coral fragments easily and rapidly at an urgent moment for coral worldwide.

A large elkhorn coral underwater on a sunny day in Curacao.
Elkhorn coral has a branching structure that provides habitat for fish and other reef-dwelling animals. Image: Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

Panama commits to protecting over half of its ocean waters

Based on Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute science, the government of Panama made an important commitment on March 22, 2023, during the 8th Our Ocean Conference, to expand the Banco Volcán Managed Resources Area in the Panamanian Caribbean by 557 percent, a decision that led the country to protect over 54 percent of its oceans. Safeguarding the unique natural resources of Banco Volcán will help buffer the country from climate change and protect Panama's deep-sea mountain environments and animals from human interventions. This includes several fish and invertebrate species of high commercial value. These species represent an important sustainable resource for local indigenous and Afro-Caribbean coastal communities. 

A map that shows expanded marine protected areas off of Panama coast.
Panama’s new Marine Protected Areas bring the total area of protected oceans to more than 50 percent.

First museum to display a piece of the Bennu asteroid

On November 3, 2023, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History unveiled the first public display of a sample of Bennu—a carbon-rich, near-Earth asteroid—to museumgoers. The rocky fragment was collected from the asteroid by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, the first U.S. space mission to sample the surface of a planetary body since Apollo 17 in 1972. Samples from Bennu may provide insights into how water and organic molecules first reached Earth.

The Bennu asteroid sample in a museum case.
The Bennu sample on exhibition in the meteorite gallery of the museum’s Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals. Image: James Di Loreto and Phillip R. Lee, NMNH.

The scimitar-horned oryx is moved from “Extinct in the Wild” to “Endangered” status

On December 20, 2023, the scimitar-horned oryx was decategorized as “Extinct in the Wild” and reclassified as “Endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)–the first species ever to be downlisted from this status. Several oryxes were born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute over the years and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center introduced the first group of 23 individuals in 2016 to central Chad in North Africa. The Smithsonian is monitoring the animals’ movement and survival using tracking collars to ensure the population’s long-term health. 

Oryx being released into the wild from several wooden boxes.
Scimitar-horned oryx being released into a holding pen in Chad. Image: Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD).