Twelve powerful images to remind us how weird and wild the world is

Including a ‘Titanic’ tribute for the ages.
cheetah chasing an antelope
Speed and Strategy (errestrial Wildlife Winner) Yi Liu

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 seven continents, eleven biomes, and upwards of a trillion species, this planet has a lot to offer in terms of diversity. But the vast majority of us only experience a speck of it.

Wildlife photography, however, helps increase our exposure to the unknown. Take the California Academy of Science’s BigPicture competition, for instance: It puts stunning, biologically insightful images out in the public eye each spring. The gallery of winners might cover close encounters with megafauna, glimpses of life hidden under water, dirt, and ice, and windows into ecological relationships that surpass our imaginations. The 2020 selections are no exception.

This year’s awardees, judged by renowned nature photographers Suzi Eszterhas, Tony Wu, and Sophie Stafford, include stories of adaptation, predation, human sentinels, and as always, climate change. From the Scottish Highlands to Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the images show a patchwork of cultures and habitats, proving that there really is no separating human life from wildlife in our world.

Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya (above)

Although they’re the fastest land animals in the world, catching prey is no easy feat for a cheetah. The mostly treeless terrain of the African savanna gives antelopes, impalas, and other ungulates ample time to spot approaching predators, and even a slight head start can be the difference between life and death. To avoid alerting their prey, cheetahs start out hunting low to the ground, where their spotted coat helps them blend into the terrain. When they get within 60 meters (200 feet) of their target, cheetahs accelerate at a blistering pace, reaching 95 kilometers (60 miles) per hour in a matter of seconds. But the feline predators still have to account for the speed of their prey—in this case an impala, which can zigzag at upwards of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour. To close the gap, this cheetah tripped its quarry as it attempted to escape, proving that sometimes, strategy is just as important as speed.

a male common toad
Aquatic Life Finalist: common toads in a nuptial embrace. Mathieu Foulquié

Lez River, France

Beneath the turbulence of a small waterfall in France’s Lez River, a male common toad holds on for dear life. Not his own life, though—the male is helping to ensure his species’ survival by fertilizing his female companion’s eggs as she lays them. Known as amplexus—Latin for “embrace”—this mating behavior is common among amphibians and other animals whose eggs must be fertilized externally. Males temporarily develop glands on their toes, known as nuptial pads, to help them grip the swollen abdomens of the females. Then, as the female releases thousands of eggs in pearly, gelatinous strands, the male coats them with sperm.

Guardians of the Giraffes
Photo Story Winner: the Samburu giraffe guardian. Ami Vitale

Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, Kenya

Too often, says Ami Vitale, nature photography excludes the humans whose lives are intertwined with the natural world. Her decade-long project documenting the bonds between Samburu people and wildlife in northern Kenya reverses this oversight, telling the story of how Samburu people became advocates for wild animals and their habitat.

For as long as Samburu people have grazed livestock, their livelihood has been seemingly at odds with the elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and other large mammals with whom they share their homeland. But as poachers decimated elephant populations in recent decades, Samburu herders realized their cattle were also suffering. Elephants promote grass growth by clearing brush and small trees, so as their numbers shrink, there’s less grass for cows to graze on. In response, the Samburu launched a sanctuary to rehabilitate orphaned elephants, along with other conservation programs that benefit threatened species like the reticulated giraffe, shown here. These efforts are changing long-standing Samburu attitudes toward wildlife, and show how the health of human and animal communities are connected. “Indigenous communities hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals,” says Vitale. “Where these communities are intact, poaching has dramatically decreased.”

rabbit in a snowstorm
Grand Prize Winner: a mountain hare hunkered down against the snow. Andy Parkinson

Tomatin, Scotland

To get this intimate shot of a mountain hare curled up against a Scottish winter storm, Andy Parkinson endured weeks of ferocious cold and wind that drove shards of ice into his face. Britain’s only native rabbit species, on the other hand, is utterly at home in these inhospitable conditions. Groups of twenty or more hares gather each winter to nibble heather on leeward slopes, where the snow tends to be shallower. Before resting, they jump away from their tracks to confuse predators. And while some ride out storms in burrows or depressions, this female created her own shelter, tucking herself into a ball to conserve heat and minimize exposure to the elements. It’s a nifty strategy for surviving the kind of weather that drives most creatures indoors or underground.

Despite their fortitude, mountain hares are Britain’s fastest-declining mammal, due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. Parkinson hopes that calling attention to these remarkable rabbits will convince legislators to protect them.

Landscapes, Waterscapes, and Flora Finalist: magical, mystical mushrooms. Agorastos Papatsanis

Deskati, Greece

Despite the ethereal appearance of this photo, these edible mushrooms won’t induce any hallucinations. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t magical. Indeed, the more we learn about mushrooms, the more magic they seem to harbor. From helping trees communicate to producing cancer-fighting metabolites, scientists have only begun to uncover the fantastic features of fungi.

At the root of many of these capabilities is the unique role that mushrooms play in the environment. As primary decomposers, mushrooms break down the organic matter of dead plants and animals. In return, the fungi become flush with essential nutrients and minerals, a number of which can confer antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anticancer benefits to humans. This same ability also makes mushrooms exceptional environmental remediators, ingesting the toxins and heavy metals that various industrial practices have leached into the soil.

bat skimming a pond
Winged Life Winner: a close study of the Mozambique long-fingered bat. Piotr Naskrecki

Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

In Gorongosa National Park, at the southern tip of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, water breathes with the seasons. Lakes and rivers that overflow during the winter months are reduced to puddles and trickles come summer. For many species—including the Mozambique long-fingered bat—the dry season means longer journeys for a much-needed sip of water.

As our planet warms and droughts increase in both frequency and intensity, the seasonal oases that bats depend on are drying up. Without adequate water, healthy bats begin to weaken, making them more susceptible to diseases that are already devastating populations around the world. Those that survive are sometimes forced to drink from human-made bodies of water—a boon for bats, but a potential risk for people who drink from those same water sources, since bats carry a host of zoonotic diseases. It’s often at these interspecies interfaces that killers like Ebola and the novel coronavirus emerge.

oblong-leaved sundew
Landscapes, Waterscapes, and Flora Winner: the sticky grip of the oblong-leaved sundew. Edwin Giesbers

Hatertse Vennen Nature Reserve, The Netherlands

Innocently poised on the thin red spines of an oblong-leaved sundew, beads of nectar beckon insects like sweet garnishes on a lethal cocktail. When an insect lands to sip the nectar, the carnivorous sundew slowly curls its leaves around it, releasing digestive enzymes that liquify its unsuspecting prey into a digestible meal. If a sundew ensnares something inedible, it promptly releases the non-nutritious offender from its grasp.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from eating insects allows sundews to thrive in places where most plants can’t survive, like the acidic, nutrient-poor soil of swamps and bogs. These adaptations fascinated Charles Darwin, who wrote in 1860 that he cared “more about Drosera than the origin of all the species.” Nonetheless, Darwin would wait 15 years before publishing his controversial suspicions that, indeed, some plants eat animals.

Hippo Huddle
Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist: drought, mud, and a hippo boondoggle. Talib Almarri

Okvango Delta, Botswana

Each winter, as the waters of Botswana’s Okavango River spread across its vast delta, an array of African wildlife congregates to eat, drink, splash, and soak. This seasonal wetland was especially important in 2019, when severe drought left human and animal populations alike desperate for water. Cattle, elephants, crocodiles, and other creatures were left to vie for any water they could find in the delta’s shrinking pools.

Among those seeking refuge were herds of hippopotamuses. These semi-aquatic herbivores are well-equipped for spending hours each day in the water—their nostrils and eyes located so high on their head that they can breathe and see while mostly submerged. They’re also graceful swimmers, and can hold their breath for up to five minutes. But even their aquatic abilities and impressive heft were no match for last year’s muddy, drought-stricken delta. At least 200 hippos became trapped in the mud, and managed to survive only because Botswana wildlife officials pumped in water to help them escape. As the climate warms, such droughts may become more frequent across much of Africa.

dried riverbed
Art of Nature Winner: the toxic footprint of the Rio Tinto. Juan Jesús González Ahumada

Río Tinto, Spain

Along the Río Tinto in western Spain, layers of multicolored sediment combine with blood red water to produce an otherworldly effect. But the strange coloration—shown here in a photo of cracked mud at the river’s edge—has familiar origins: Runoff from millennia of mining in the surrounding Sierra Morena has caused rampant acidification and toxic levels of dissolved metals. The pollution is so extreme that NASA has used the river and the resilient microbes that call it home as a proxy for the conditions for life on Mars.

Unsurprisingly, the water is unusable for the communities that live near it—at least for now. In 2016, a collaboration between a team of Spanish researchers looking into the mineralogy of the river and a group of French researchers seeking to decontaminate it made an important discovery. When the water was purified, the leftover solids contained a high concentration of microscopic aluminum particles, a valuable commodity which can be sold to offset the cost of decontamination.

bird exhibit
Human/Nature Winner: feral-cat fatalities on display. Jak Wonderly

San Rafael, California

Every year, the staff at WildCare, a California animal rescue organization, is tasked with rehabilitating hundreds of birds and other wild animals mauled by outdoor house cats. The 200 pictured here did not survive. “I wanted to create an image to show some of the impacts our pets have on the wildlife around our homes,” says Jak Wonderly.

One of those impacts is a world with less birdsong. In the US alone, more than two billion birds are killed by cats annually. Other nations, including Australia and New Zealand, have tried to protect native wildlife by imposing restrictions on cat owners, such as “cat curfews” that require cats to be indoors after dark. But because such measures are unlikely to gain traction in North America, Wonderly took this devastating photo. By illustrating the suffering that free-roaming house cats cause, he hopes to spark discussion about alternative solutions for reducing the death toll caused by our pets.

elephant trunk reaching through window into kitchen
Art of Nature Winner: a kitchen-raiding African elephant. Gunther De Bruyne

Kasungu National Park, Malawi

After an unsuccessful attempt at grabbing a snack, this African savanna elephant took out its frustrations on the roof of an open-air kitchen in Malawi’s Kasungu National Park. Photographer and biologist Gunther De Bruyne says such destruction was common during his stay at a research station there. But, De Bruyne adds, there’s a reason why Kasungu’s elephants are unusually dangerous: He and other scientists have found that elephants from heavily poached regions tend to be more aggressive.

In 1977, more than 1,000 elephants roamed Kasungu. By 2015, poaching had reduced the population to just 50. While recent ivory bans might be turning the tide—there are now over 80 elephants in the park—recovery takes time, especially among animals as intelligent and long-lived as elephants. Maybe on De Bruyne’s next visit, the kitchen roof will remain standing.

seals hunting underneath ice
Aquatic Life Winner: crabeater seals in their icy underwater digs. Greg Lecoeur

Antarctic Peninsula

French photographer Greg Lecouer braved frigid waters to catch this rare glimpse of life below Antarctic ice, where he encountered a crew of crabeater seals. Clumsy and laborious on land, crabeater seals are elegant and agile swimmers that spend their entire lives in the pack ice zone surrounding the frozen continent. Buoyed by polar currents, icebergs calve off mainland glaciers, carrying minerals and nutrients from land into the ocean. Once sea bound, the icebergs slowly melt, releasing critical nutrients in their wake and providing seals with both food and shelter. The fertilized waters prompt a bloom of phytoplankton that attracts krill—which, despite the crabeaters’ name, is a favorite meal of the seals.