The 5 most popular scientific papers of March 2020 in the Nature Index journals

Vanishing coastlines and a threat to sea turtles feature in these stand-out studies from March.

  • Bec Crew

Credit: Han Zhixin

The 5 most popular scientific papers of March 2020 in the Nature Index journals

Vanishing coastlines and a threat to sea turtles feature in these stand-out studies from March.

1 September 2020

Bec Crew

Han Zhixin

The influx of COVID-19-related submissions in 2020 has forced many other papers to take a back seat. But even in March, as the global spread of COVID-19 was starting to pick up steam, studies on a pint-sized prehistoric critter, odorous plastic, and disappearing beaches managed to break through and resonate with millions.

Below are five most popular natural sciences studies of March, published in the 82 high-quality journals tracked by the Nature Index.

The sole coronavirus study in this list, ranked by Altmetric attention score, has reached more than 9 million people on Twitter so far.

A controversial palaeontology paper that made the top five has since been retracted.

1. “Sandy coastlines under threat of erosion”

Nature Climate Change

Half of the world's beaches could disappear by the end of the century due to coastal erosion, according to the first global assessment of future sandy shoreline dynamics.

Led by Michalis I. Vousdoukas, a researcher in coastal oceanography at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, the study predicted that rising sea levels and more intense storms driven by climate change will accelerate erosion of sandy beaches, which cover more than 30% of the world's coastlines.

But it’s not all bad news. Effective climate action could prevent 40% of that erosion, the researchers suggest.

The study has been covered by more than 300 news outlets so far and has reached more than 1 million people on Twitter, according to Altmetric.

Twitter users from Argentina make up 16% of the paper’s global audience, followed by users in Australia (5%) and the UK (5%).

3. “Hummingbird-sized dinosaur from the Cretaceous period of Myanmar” - retracted


The story following this paper’s publication is almost as intriguing as the subject itself – the skull of a diminutive prehistoric creature trapped in a piece of 99-million-year-old amber.

Conducted by a team from China, the United States, and Canada, the study presents a dinosaur that is tinier than the smallest living bird species, the bee hummingbird.

Controversy set in the week following the paper’s publication on March 11, when a preprint led by Zhiheng Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences challenged the classification of the new species, called Oculudentavis khaungraae.

“This enigmatic animal … demonstrates various lizard-like morphologies,” the preprint argues. “The avian or dinosaurian assignment of Oculudentavis is conclusively rejected.”

The paper was retracted by Nature, but, as this Retraction Watch article explains, the corresponding author, Jingmai K. O’Connor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, disagreed with the decision.

The paper reached an audience of more than 5 million on Twitter, and was covered by publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek and National Geographic.

3. “Crystal structure of SARS-CoV-2 main protease provides a basis for design of improved α-ketoamide inhibitors”


The sole coronavirus-related paper in this top five, this study is focussed on a type of protein called the viral main protease, responsible for the reproduction of the virus.

Led by Rolf Hilgenfeld from the University of Lübeck in Germany, the study presents the decoded architecture of the main protease of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

Hilgenfeld and his team elucidated the arrangement of tiny protein crystals using a high-intensity X-ray light from the BESSY II facility housed by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin in Germany.

Identifying the 3D architecture of the main protease of SARS-CoV-2 gives researchers a good starting point for developing treatments to block the effects of the virus.

The paper has been covered by almost 80 online news outlets and more than 2,000 users on Twitter, reaching an audience on the platform of more than 9 million.

4. “Regime shifts occur disproportionately faster in larger ecosystems”

Nature Communications

Environmental concerns might have been eclipsed by the pandemic for now, but they’re not going away. In fact, in some respects, they’re even more severe than we thought, based on the conclusions of this paper.

Conducted by a team from University of Southampton, the University of London, and Bangor University in the UK, the study draws on data from previous scientific publications, institutional reports, and online databases to understand the transformations of 40 natural terrestrial and aquatic environments from around the world.

Large ecosystems, such as rainforests and coral reefs, risk collapsing at a significantly faster rate than previously understood, the authors conclude.

"The messages here are stark. We need to prepare for changes in our planet's ecosystems that are faster than we previously envisaged,” lead researcher, John Dearing from the University of Southampton, said in a press release.

The paper was covered by more than 200 online news outlets, according to Altmetric.

5. “Odors from marine plastic debris elicit foraging behavior in sea turtles”

Current Biology

It takes just one week for a piece of plastic floating in the ocean to begin to smell like turtle food, according to this study led by Joe Pfaller from the Caretta Research Project in Savannah, Georgia.

Pfaller and his team found that the amount of algae and microorganisms that accumulated on a piece of plastic floating in the ocean after several days gave it the odour of the sea turtle’s natural diet – seagrasses, sponges, sea squirts, and crabs, for example.

The study raises concerns that not only are these marine animals inadvertently swallowing plastic debris as it floats through the ocean, they are actively seeking it out due to the way it smells.

The paper has been covered by more than 200 online news outlets so far, and reached more than 200,000 people on Twitter.