Every year, the California Academy of Scenes puts on the BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition, showcasing the Earth’s biodiversity through amazing and unique photographs. 2021s submissions are stunning, showing nature’s beauty and resilience. These photos originally appeared in bioGraphic, the official media partner.
Jo-Anne McArthur took home this year’s grand prize for the photo, Hope Amidst the Ashes. The photo was taken in Australia while McArthur was working with Vets for Compassion, a group searching for injured Koalas in the Australian bushfires. Amid a burnt forest, a kangaroo stands stoically with her joey in her pouch.
Other winners and finalists come from categories like Art of Nature, Winged Life, Terrestrial Life, and Aquatic Life. The hope is that by showcasing these beautiful images, people will be called to protect the life found on our planet before it’s too late.
These images originally appeared on bioGraphic, an online magazine about science and sustainability and the official media sponsor for the California Academy of Sciences’ BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition.
With their silky coats, big, dark eyes, and perpetual grins, leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) can look downright cuddly lounging on Antarctic ice floes. It’s safe to say, though, that penguins have a different perspective of these powerful apex predators. Weighing up to 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds), with powerful jaws lined with sharp teeth, and long front flippers that propel them through the water at speeds up to 37 kilometers per hour (23 miles per hour), leopard seals are capable of catching and subduing a wide range of prey.
Few animals are safe in their presence. Studies have shown that leopard seals feed on everything from krill, fish, octopuses, and crabs to penguins and other seals. A recent study conducted on the Antarctic Peninsula, not far from where photographer Amos Nachoum captured this image of a leopard seal preying on a young Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), found that penguins make up about a quarter of the leopard seal’s diet throughout the year. That proportion increases to nearly 50 percent for the larger female leopard seals, especially when they have pups. As polar regions continue to warm disproportionately to the rest of the world, scientists are scrambling to better understand such feeding behaviors and their potential to impact the populations of vulnerable species.
Dancing in the glow of photographer Sarang Naik’s flashlight, a golden plume of spores rises from the gills of a mushroom cap outside of Toplepada, India. In due time, this magical pixie dust will create more mushrooms—and not only in the way that you might think. While a small number of these mighty motes will land on soil suitable enough for producing the branching underground filaments that beget new mushrooms, many more spores will find their way into the atmosphere to serve an equally important purpose.
Each year, millions of tons of fungal spores are aerosolized into the atmosphere where they provide the solid core for the condensation of water into clouds and rainfall, breathing life into forests around the world and sustaining future generations of fungi. This cycle can go both ways, however. As droughts worsen with climate change, fewer mushrooms will spring up, which in turn lessens spore-spurred rains, which may then lead to more intense droughts in the future.
While there’s no particular shortage of perches in the Ecuadorian highlands, few seem as tailor-made for little feet as the long, slender beak of a sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera). What might appear to be a youngster taking a break under the exasperated gaze of its parent, turns out to be a bird of a different feather: an opportunistic speckled hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys) simply looking to save a little energy.
For hummingbirds, especially species that live in the cool and wet Andean cloud forests like these two, calories—those they consume and those they conserve—are key to survival and reproduction. After all, tiny though they are, it can take hundreds of flower visits per day to keep a hummingbird running. So, a conveniently placed perch, and one that comes with its own predator-detection capabilities, is hard to pass up.
Though a post-pandemic world is finally in sight, the scars of COVID-19 will live on for years to come—including those on our environment. Since the start of the pandemic, the production of single-use plastics has skyrocketed, largely driven by the surge in epidemiologically necessary but ecologically devastating personal protective equipment. According to one study, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves were used globally each month during the pandemic, as much as 75 percent of which are likely to end up in landfills or the ocean. Much of that equipment—including this mask being investigated by a curious California sea lion (Zalophus californianus)—is made from durable plastics that take hundreds of years to break down. However, if the past year has shown us anything, it is that all can be accomplished through resources and resolve. Perhaps a new picture of our approach to single-use goods will soon emerge.
This beautiful and mesmerizing view may very well be the last thing that many hapless ocean-going creatures see before falling victim to the barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo). Also known as the dustbin-lid jellyfish for the size and shape of its bell when washed up on UK shorelines, the species is one of the largest jellies in the world, reaching 90 centimeters (35 inches) or more in diameter. It ranges widely from the North and South Atlantic to the Mediterranean and Black Sea. While most often seen dead and flattened on beaches, in the water, the barrel jellyfish’s translucent bell takes on a mushroom shape, fringed with a brilliant violet ribbon of sensory organs. Eight frilly arms trail behind the bell, subduing prey and pulling it toward the jellyfish’s mouth. By backlighting his shot, photographer Angel Fitor was able to capture those arms here in intimate and ominous detail.
Common ravens (Corvus corax) usually mate for life, and this intimate, open-beaked moment captured by photographer Shane Kalyn is likely an example of allopreening—reciprocal grooming that serves both to solidify social bonds and to keep plumage clean. Tender as this behavior is, it sometimes puts the birds at risk of an aggressive intervention from other members of their species. A 2014 study by scientists at the University of Vienna revealed that ravens will often interrupt grooming sessions between other paired individuals, especially those with more tenuously established bonds.
These interventions are an apparent attempt to prevent neighboring couples from developing the kinds of strong pair bonds that lead to greater reproductive success. As scientist Kaeli Swift notes, “embracing the results of this study requires accepting the idea that an animal, especially a bird, is capable of putting future rewards ahead of current risk or losses. As humans, this kind of future planning is an ability we take for granted, but it’s quite a cognitive feat.” For birds with a documented ability to use tools and solve puzzles, it’s just one more impressive feat to add to the list.
In Canada’s Yukon Territory, grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) delay their hibernation to catch the last salmon runs of the season. As temperatures drop below -20 degrees Celsius, the grizzlies’ water-soaked fur freezes into a chandelier of icicles that jingle with each step. Local Indigenous peoples tell stories of arrows unable to penetrate the icy armor of the bears. Unfortunately, Yukon’s ice bears, as they are known, are facing new threats for which their armor is no match. Climate change and other human activities are leading to sparse salmon runs, reduced river flows, and shorter winters, all of which put the ice bears’ way of life in jeopardy.
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