It’s been another turbulent year, that we’re sure many will be keen to see the back of. But despite the challenges, 2021 has also given us some riveting, exciting and heartwarming stories from the natural world. Here’s a look back at some happy highlights from the year:

Skunks doing handstands


Okay, we know this handstand routine is supposed to strike fear into the hearts of skunk enemies, but come on ...

This adorable acrobat was caught on a remote camera trap in Florida earlier this year putting on a terrific threat display. Spotted skunks perform these splayed-tail handstand walks as a warning to their enemies to back off. Ignoring the upside-down dance can earn you a dose of signature skunk scent.

Flying rhinos

Each year, science humor magazine the Annals of Improbable Research dishes out awards for seemingly strange and oftentimes pointless scientific experiments in an attempt to honor projects that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. The 2021 Ig-Nobel Transportation Prize went to a study that explored the impacts of dangling rhinos upside-down by their ankles from helicopters – a concept that’s certainly bizarre enough to make the cut, but underlies a vital need to better understand rhino translocation and to determine the safest methods for transporting these behemoths. As Africa’s rhinos continue to suffer from rampant poaching, this kind of research adds to a wealth of knowledge that may help save the imperiled animals.

A wandering walrus

Wally the walrus captured the hearts of global audiences earlier this year when the lovable mammal undertook an extended tour of Europe, turning up on boats and jetties across the UK, Ireland, France and Spain. Walruses usually spend their time in the Arctic, making Wally’s appearance in warmer climes unusual. He soon gained celebrity status as word spread of his antics, which included sinking several boats in Ireland and the Isles of Scilly as well as being struck by a vessel in France. Wally was last spotted on a pier in Iceland, a lot closer to his normal stomping grounds.

Golfing bear cubs

We’re suckers for a good tale of animals turning up in an unexpected places, and golf courses often play host to an array of wildlife. Earlier this year, a trio of black-bear cubs were out and about – and apparently very much ready to rumble – on a golf course at Lake Toxaway in western North Carolina. One full-of-moxie cub engaged in mock battle with a flagstick: tackling and wrestling it, spurred on, it seems, by its opponent’s dogged springiness. Its two littermates, meanwhile, aimed the same kind of pugilistic spirit at one another in the background. All three of them showed plenty of devil-may-care spunk out there on the course, but were presumably being watched over by mama bear somewhere off-camera.

Kung fu kangaroos

We’ve all had our struggles this year. For this kangaroo, a hammock provided a significant challenge. South Australian resident Karen Wishart captured footage of a particularly pugnacious marsupial 'sparring' with a hammock-style swing hanging in her backyard. The young roo can be seen dancing around the dangling fabric, dishing out vicious jabs and kicks (and getting its feet tangling up in the process).

Singing lemurs

A team of researchers from Italy have been listening to the calls of Indri lemurs for the last twelve years in an attempt to figure out if the primates share our sense of musical rhythm, and in 2021 they published a paper that shows Indris know how to boogie. The researchers set out to investigate whether Indris – social primates that often sing together in harmonized duets – make use of a universal form of rhythm that’s common across human musical cultures, but largely absent in the animal kingdom. The finding helps scientists gain a better understanding of the origins of musical traits and how they may have evolved.

A Bodybuilding squirrel

Image © David Roberts

Do you even lift, bro? We’re used to seeing kangaroos putting on a “gun show” for the camera, but a squirrel flexing its pecks is a rarer sight. Scottish resident David Roberts captured this shot of a particularly buff grey squirrel posing on a windowsill at his home in Glasgow earlier this year. He shared the image to Facebook where it quickly gained popularity. The squirrel has since been dubbed Arnold Squirrelzenegger and if it’s not one of the greatest things to come out of 2021 well then we just don’t know anymore.

Traveling elephants

Wally the walrus wasn’t the only travelling animal to gain notoriety this year. A herd of elephants in China made global headlines when they undertook an unprecedented journey hundreds of miles across southern China. Along the way, the elephants plundered crops and wowed locals as amateur footage and drones tracked their trail of trouble. Although their trek captured the imaginations of millions, the reason for their journey highlights China’s struggle to strike a balance between wildlife conservation and human development. Much of the elephants’ historical range has been lost to infrastructure and commercial farmland forcing the animals to go on the move in search of food. Thankfully, this herd seems to have returned to the nature reserve they originally strayed from, but this likely won’t be the last elephant trek we’ll see.

A celebrity sea duo

Who doesn’t love a bit of life imitating art (or is it the other way around)? Earlier this year, a remote-controlled submersible operating in the Atlantic Ocean captured a pinkish starfish lying beside a yellow sea sponge in a scene that’s about as close to a live action remake from SpongeBob Squarepants as you’re likely to find. Marine biologist Christopher Mah, who tweeted the image and made the comparison to the animated show's titular character and quirky sidekick, explained to Insider that the sponge belongs to the Hertwigia genus (they aren’t usually this square) and the sea star is a Chondraster.

A Paddleboarding seal


In case you require further proof that seals are really just dogs of the sea, take a look at this cheeky hitchhiker that was filmed in May this year soaking up some sun after climbing atop a paddleboard that was clearly already occupied. Cenk Albayrak-Touye was enjoying a causal paddle around Poole Harbour in Dorset, England when an inquisitive seal swam over and plonked itself purposefully on the front of his paddleboard. The pinniped is apparently known to locals and regularly "hitchhikes" – sometimes falling asleep on paddleboards and rarely paying too much heed to the humans from whom it commandeers its vessels.