WILD LIFE | 05.01.18

The Big Picture 2018

From the beautiful to the bizarre, this photographic showcase of life on Earth shines a light on some of our planet's most amazing species and places.


Every year, the California Academy of Sciences’ renowned BigPicture Photography Competition celebrates some of the world’s best photographers and the year’s most striking images. Judged by an elite panel of nature and conservation photography experts, the competition’s winning images highlight Earth’s biodiversity and illustrate the threats our planet faces. Each photo, in its own way, inspires viewers to protect and conserve the remarkable diversity of life on Earth. Below, we present some of our personal favorites from this year’s competition.


Peek of the Newborn
by Claudio Contreras

Winged Life Winner

Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, Yucatan, Mexico

A Caribbean flamingo chick (

Phoenicopterus ruber

) peers out from beneath the protective wing of its mother, stealing one of the few glimpses of the outside world it will catch for the first six to eight days of its life. Like the other newborns in the colony, it’s hunkered down in the nest where it hatched—a conical mound of mud along the estuary shoreline that resembles a small volcano. Flamingo chicks are able to stand within hours of hatching, but these slippery, steep-sided mounds are a treacherous place to take one’s first steps, so their parents keep them under wraps until they’ve gained the strength and balance they need to exit the nest gracefully.


The Rescue
by Audun Rikardsen

Human/Nature Finalist

Tromsø, Norway

Norwegian wildlife photographer Audun Rikardsen had just set out in his boat in search of subjects to document one winter day when he encountered a humpback whale (

Megaptera novaeangliae

) entangled in a thick, yellow internet cable. “The whale was desperate and constantly dragged down by the weight of the cable,” says Rikardsen. “It approached my boat, clearly asking for help, and I could see the fear in its eyes.” When Rikardsen couldn’t cut the whale loose on his own, he contacted the Coast Guard, pictured here, who finally managed to set the beleaguered animal free. It had been ensnared for at least a day and a half by a cable that should have been secured to the bottom of the fjord 170 meters (558 feet) below the surface. “A life was saved,” says Rikardsen, “but three districts, including my own, were without network coverage for a long time.”


by Bence Mate

Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist

Kiskunsag National Park, Hungary

When Bence Mate first observed European ground squirrels (

Spermophilus citellus

) nibbling on dandelion stalks two years ago, he immediately put the fanciful scene onto his bucket list of photographs to capture. “I was sure I had just witnessed the most interesting thing in this species’ world,” says Mate, who took great delight in watching as the squirrels sent the dandelion seeds skyward as they foraged. After two straight weeks of lying in the grass with his camera poised, he finally got his shot—and his wish.



by Tanya Houppermans

Grand Prize Winner

Cape Lookout, North Carolina, USA

Off the coast of North Carolina, near the wreck of a ship named the


, a sand tiger shark (

Carcharias taurus

) meanders lazily through a massive ball of bait fish. Sand tigers tend to congregate around the sunken freighter, which was hit by German torpedoes during World War II, because it functions as an artificial reef—providing prime habitat for the bony fish and smaller sharks that are targets for these top predators. Photographer Tanya Houppermans was diving near the wreck when she saw dozens of sand tiger sharks slowly milling around a bait ball so dense that she found herself in nearly complete darkness when she swam into its center. “I looked up and noticed a sand tiger a few feet above me,” says Houppermans, who began swimming on her back beneath her subject. “As I moved with the shark through the water, the bait fish parted way, giving me a clear shot of the underside of the shark. It was beautiful and peaceful, which are two words most people don't associate with sharks.”



Rooms with a View
by Jordi Benitez

Aquatic Life Finalist

Platja de Calafell/El Vendrell, Spain

Take a close look at this fried egg jellyfish (

Cotylorhiza tuberculate

), and you’ll see that it has some tenants—four juvenile Atlantic horse mackerel (

Trachurus trachurus

) peek out from beneath its sunny-side-up dome. Inside this mobile apartment complex, the young fish find both protection from predators and a free meal, often feeding on tiny prey ensnared by the jelly. When photographer Jordi Benitez captured this portrait on a recent night dive, he knew the fried egg jellyfish was sheltering at least one resident mackerel, but it wasn’t until he saw the image on his computer that he realized he’d documented such a full house. “It was magic,” he says of the revelation.



Rhapsody in Pink
by Donna Bourdon

Winged Life Finalist

St. Augustine, Florida, USA

Against a cloudy backdrop, a roseate spoonbill (

Platalea ajaja

) flies back to its nest to feed its chicks—a job that both parents will share until the chicks are strong enough to leave the nest, about five or six weeks after hatching. Like flamingos, these flamboyant birds get their color by eating crustaceans and other invertebrates packed with pink pigments called carotenoids. In the 1800s, roseate spoonbills were heavily hunted for their feathers, which were used to make decorative fans and hats. However, the magnificently gaudy birds are now protected and have rebounded across their range.



From Above
by Jacques-Andre Dupont

Winged Life Finalist

Bonaventure Island, Canada

A northern gannet (

Morus bassanus

) flies over a densely packed breeding site, surveying thousands of equally spaced nests in search of its mate. Fortunately, it knows the route well. Northern gannets form monogamous pairs that return to the same nest year after year to raise their offspring. Males construct the nests out of grass, seaweed, soil, and feathers, cementing their building materials together with droppings. After years of use, remodeling, and reinforcements, the nests become tall mounds that the birds aggressively defend. Prime real estate is hard to come by, so the gannets tend to nest in close quarters, but each male tries to ensure that his structure is just out of neck’s reach from its neighbors.



Under the Northern Lights
by Audun Rikardsen

Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist

Tromsø, Norway

While northern lights and shooting stars paint the Arctic sky, a European common frog (

Rana temporaria

) rests along a riverbank, its blood coursing with natural compounds that function like antifreeze. No other amphibian can survive as far north as this cold-adapted species. The spectacular view on this autumn night is likely to be one of the last the frog will take in before submerging itself in the river to hibernate for the winter. Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen, who encountered this scene just a few hundred meters from his house, captured the photo in a single exposure by adjusting both the focus and the aperture during the shot.



Bubble Play
by Renee Capozzola

Aquatic Life Winner

Island of Mo'orea, French Polynesia

A humpback whale calf (

Megaptera novaeangliae

) rises toward the surface, keeping pace with the bubbles its mother has just exhaled. As it does, the calf opens its mouth wide and seems to amuse itself with the ephemeral objects that have just floated into view. Photographer and biologist Renee Capozzola, who captured the image during the whales’ wintering season off the Pacific Island of Mo'orea, is careful not to definitively describe the behavior she witnessed as “play.” There’s obviously no way to know for certain what the animal was thinking as Capozzola looked on. Perhaps the youngster was practicing a predatory behavior known as lunge feeding that might come in handy during the pod’s feeding forays into Antarctica later in the year. Still, despite the possible practical explanations, the photographer couldn’t help concluding that “this seemed to be the happiest, most playful humpback calf” she’d ever seen. Perhaps for the young of this species, and others, practice and play aren’t so different.



by Eduardo Acevedo

Aquatic Life Finalist

Los Gigantes, Tenerife, Canary Islands

Although this glasseye (

Heteropriacanthus cruentatus

) may look perplexed, the fish is probably well acquainted with the parasitic passenger that calls its body home. Glasseyes are found in tropical oceans and seas around the world, and in most places they swim free of such harmful hitchhikers. Unfortunately for individuals that occupy reefs around the Canary Islands, the species happens to be the host of choice for the resident isopods,

Nerocila armata

, that feed on their blood. While the parasites may begin life by hopping from one species to another, by the time they reach adulthood, they will have found and dug their hooks into the flesh of a glasseye. What may sound like a horrible piece of evolutionary misfortune for the fish is certainly not the worst-case scenario. As


highlighted in “Tongue Tied,” some isopods in the family to which

N. armata

belong latch onto their hosts’ tongues, eventually causing the organ to atrophy and be replaced by the parasite itself.


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