What can we learn from a zebrafish’s regenerating tail? Or a termite army’s march into uncharted terrain? Welcome to the fields of ecology and evolution, where researchers observe the natural world to better understand how species are shaped by each other and their environments

In practice, it takes years of notetaking and analysis to break down adaptations and other evolutionary forces. Charles Darwin noticed the uniquely shaped beaks of the Galapagos finches during a five-week foray to the islands, and then spent the next decade and a half trying to make sense of them. 

But even a single moment can shed light on an organism’s grind for survival, especially when it’s captured on camera. The BioMed Central Ecology and Evolution image competition highlights photos that show adaptations in action. Experts submit works from lab benches and field sites across the world to vy for the crowning spot in their area of study.

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Here are the judges’ 2021 selections for each category, along with the grand prize winner.

Best in Human Evolution and Ecology

Baboon on treadmill
A researcher uses a baboon to study human locomotion. Photo: Roberto Garcia-Roa

Overall winner and best in Conservation Biology

School of jackfish in Great Barrier Reef
A school of jack fish makes a spiral formation at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Kristen Brown

Editor’s pick

Gladiator frog and snake in mud
A giant gladiator frog tries to escape from a snake predator. Photo: Dmitri Ouboter

Best in Ecological Developmental Biology

Zebrafish tail x-ray
A zebrafish regrew its tail only two weeks after it was clipped at the white horizontal dotted line. Photo: Grey Chapman

Best in Behavioral Ecology

Wasp eating spider
A wasp captures a spider in Tiputini, Ecuador. Photo: Roberto Garcia-Roa

Best in Evolutionary Developmental Biology and Biodiversity

Evolution photo
Eulimnogammarus verrucosus, a species of crustacean endemic to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Lake Baikal, suffers from a parasitic ciliate infection. Photo: Kseniya Vereshchagina.