Top Things We Learned in 2017

National Geographic Explorer discoveries
Photographs by (clockwise, from top left) Beverly Joubert, David Littschwager, Manu San Felix, Steve Winter, Fred Spoor

By Scott Ridge

Over the course of 2017, we continued to invest in bold people and transformative ideas with more than 600 grants, totaling nearly $12 million. This led to amazing discoveries AND achievements by our Explorer community. Our Explorers also led the way in helping protect life on Earth through their dedication and impact.

National Geographic Society looked at the collection of amazing accomplishments and cultivated our top highlights from this past year (in no particular order).

Photograph by Beverly Joubert

Troubling Trend for Cheetahs

These iconic cats are fighting for survival.

National Geographic researchers from its Big Cats Initiative say these animals should be moved up from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

In a study published in PeerJ, researchers presented evidence that low cheetah population estimates in southern Africa and population decline support a call for up-listing the species to Endangered.

Photograph by Steve Winter

Edge of Extinction

The Sumatran tiger could become extinct very soon as deforestation increases due to the rise of palm oil plantations.

National Geographic Explorer Matthew Luskin estimates 600 of these big cats remain in the wild, according to his research paper published in Nature Communications.

“The erosion of large wilderness areas pushes Sumatran tigers one step closer to extinction. We hope this serves as a wake-up call,” Luskin said.

Photograph by Manu San Felix

Marine Protection Gets Support

It was a great year for marine protection. Our Pristine Seas team was proud that its science and story-telling helped support the creation of a number of new protected areas in Nieu, Chile and Mexico.

National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, led by Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, shared the news of the governments’ decisions from Malta at the Our Ocean conference.

Combined, the three marine parks protect 290,000 square miles of ocean from fishing and extractive activities — an area more than twice the size of Germany.

Photograph courtesy Isaiah Nengo, Leakey Foundation

A Beautiful Find

National Geographic Explorer Isaiah Nengo discovered an infant ape skull believed to be approximately 13 million years old.

Named “Alesi” by Nengo’s team, the early ape is so well preserved, scientists can see the young ape’s unerupted teeth and an impression of its brain.

“We’ve been looking for ape fossils for years — this is the first time we’re getting a skull that’s complete,” said Nengo, who found Alesi at the Middle Miocene site of Napudet, Kenya.


Photograph by Evan Twomey

Poison Frog Mystery Revealed 

A small species of poison frog covered in toxins can be lethal to other animals but immune to their own defenses.

National Geographic Explorer Rebecca Tarvin discovered a genetic mutation in Neotropical frogs keeps them safe from the toxic effects of epibatidine, a chemical that can cause hypertension, seizures, and even death in other animals.

The mutation is tiny — a change in three of the 2,500 amino acids that make up a receptor which binds to receptors in other animals.

More Wonderful Discoveries

(Explorer in parenthesis).

— The only other non-human on Earth that uses a musical instrument is the Palm cockatoo. (Robert Heinsohn)

Blue whales, the world’s largest animal, are left-finned. (Ari Friedlaender)

Coconut crabs will eat live birds and have an impact on what islands bird species choose to inhabit. (Mark Laidre)

— Peanut butter is a great solution to getting a Crittercam to stick to a manta ray for longer stretches of time (Josh Stewart)

Myrmoteras ants store elastic energy in their mandibles until they use their bite at frightening speeds to catch prey. Hence the name trap-jaw ants. (Andrew Suarez)

Check out how deep-sea scans are helping archaeologists reconstruct one of the best-preserved historic warships yet discovered. (Johan Rönnby)

— A giant plant-eating, armored dinosaur is given the name Borealopelta markmitchelli. The nodosaur’s fossil, discovered in Canada, resembles a 2,800-pound pineapple. (Caleb Brown)

Changing Planet