The Big Picture 2022
Each 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 esteemed panel of nature and conservation photography experts, including Suzi Eszterhas, Sophie Stafford, and bioGraphic contributing photo editor Jaymi Heimbuch, the competition’s winning images and finalists highlight Earth’s biodiversity and illustrate the many threats that 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 the winners and some of our personal favorites from this year’s competition.
by Tom Shlesinger
Each year, from August to early October, Atlantic goliath groupers (Epinephelus itajara) gather off the east coast of Florida to spawn. On dark nights when the moon is new, refrigerator-sized males produce low-frequency booming sounds by contracting their swim bladders, calling other groupers to congregate around shipwrecks or rocky reefs. Fifty years ago, more than 100 fish might answer the call. But by 1990, the slow-moving species had been fished almost to extinction, and mating aggregations were often reduced to just a handful of fish. That year, goliath groupers were protected under both federal and state fishing bans, and the population slowly began to recover. While Florida’s mating aggregations have not yet attained the numbers local fishermen recall from the 1970s, it’s now common to see 20 to 40 groupers together during the breeding season.
Photographer and coral reef ecologist Tom Shlesinger has witnessed this spectacle many times in recent years, but swimming with these 800-pound gentle giants never gets old. During one dive last September, he watched, captivated, as a large male swam calmly through a huge, swirling school of round scads (Decapterus punctatus). “It looked like he was swimming through a tunnel of fish,” Shlesinger recalls, “and I immediately knew this was the perfect moment to capture a unique perspective.”
Shlesinger cherished the experience, partly because he knows the species is once again in jeopardy. In March, despite heavy opposition from scientists who study the species, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to reopen recreational fishing for goliath groupers beginning in 2023. Under the new plan, up to 200 permits will be sold each year for between $150 and $500, each of which will allow for the harvest of an adult grouper.
Goliath grouper experts Felicia Coleman and Chris Koenig from Florida State University have produced a litany of reasons why the decision is ill-advised, not least of which is that the population isn’t currently as stable as it might seem. While the number of juvenile groupers has increased in recent years, the number of breeding adults has actually declined, likely due to poaching and habitat degradation. Moreover, from an economic perspective, goliath groupers are worth much more alive than dead. As the mating aggregations have grown, a thriving ecotourism business has sprung up around them, generating revenue that far exceeds the price of the fishing permits. Additionally, goliath groupers prey on species that would otherwise eat juvenile lobsters; healthy populations of the fish have been linked to more robust lobster harvests.
“Opening the fishery for this iconic species under the current circumstances seems quite shortsighted,” Shlesinger laments. There is hope, though, in what scientists have learned since 1990—that if measures are adopted to protect the species, it is capable of recovering.
by Karine Aigner
On a warm spring morning in South Texas, a female cactus bee (Diadasia rinconis) emerged from her small, cylindrical nest in the ground, rising like ash from a chimney. Almost instantly, she was swarmed by dozens of patrolling males, their tawny bodies forming a buzzing, roiling “mating ball” as they vied for a chance to copulate with her. After a tumultuous 20 seconds or so, the ball of bees dissipated, and the female flew off—a single, victorious male holding tight to her back.
Because they make individual nests rather than living in a collective hive, cactus bees are considered solitary. However, the designation is somewhat misleading; the bees nest in close proximity to one another, and their mating aggregations can number in the thousands—a spectacular, highly charged sight for any lucky human observers. “Mating in the bee balls often takes place on extremely hot, bare ground,” says entomologist Avery Russell from Missouri State University, “so the grappling males might risk cooking themselves [to mate].” They also face stiff competition. “The sex ratio in this species is often wildly lopsided, with single females emerging occasionally, dozens of patrolling males finding her in seconds, and potentially thousands of males flying overhead,” he adds.
Mating aggregations only last for a little more than a week, so photographer Karine Aigner was fortunate to capture this particular mating ball. While rarely noticed or documented by humans, these native bees play a critical role as pollinators, especially for prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) cacti, a critical source of sustenance for many species in the dry American Southwest.
by Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar
Two creatures face off through a woven-wire fence: one predator the other prey; one wild, the other, essentially, manufactured for our use. The moment is a manifestation of two worlds colliding, with no clear indication of which will prevail. Such images, of the natural world intersecting with one so heavily impacted by humans, have become a near obsession for Mexico-based photographer Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar. And few places in the world present as many opportunities to capture the conflict first-hand as Martínez Belmar’s native Yucatán Peninsula, home to both the elusive jaguar (Panthera onca) and one of Mexico’s fastest-growing tourist hotspots, the “Maya Riviera.”
The largest predators in the neotropics, jaguars require a significant amount of space in order to find sufficient prey—the average home range of a male jaguar spans some 100 square kilometers (38 square miles). Inevitably, as human populations have expanded into the jaguar’s habitat, the species’ distribution has shrunk by more than half. Scientists are now working to identify conservation strategies and priorities to best support the remaining population. In Mexico, one of the most important regions of focus is the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula, which is home to nearly half of the country’s 4,000 – 5,000 jaguars. Here, the cats are thriving in two protected areas: Yum Balam on the northern tip of the peninsula and Sian Ka’an some 225 kilometers (140 miles) to the south. Between the two reserves sit Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum.
Until recently, scientists had little hope that a viable ecological corridor could exist between the two protected areas, given the heavily developed land that links them. However, a radio tracking study published earlier this year suggests that jaguars are not only using this corridor—they are establishing home ranges along its route. While the cats prefer forested or secondary growth areas over profusely disturbed habitat, they are capable of capitalizing on opportunities presented by human development. One male, for instance, centered his home range on a landfill, where he found a plentiful source of prey in the form of feral dogs and other animals that scavenged at the site. It’s not an ideal scenario, but the resilience demonstrated by these individuals provides hope that with thoughtful planning around future development in the area, the Yucatán Peninsula’s jaguars can continue to thrive.
by Jaime Culebras
On a moonlit night near the Yanayacu Research Station in northeastern Ecuador, a female Wiley’s glass frog (Nymphargus wileyi) hopped onto a fern and traversed one of its fronds, responding to the call of a waiting male. He mounted her back, prepared to hold on tight for several hours until she was ready to deposit her eggs. Finally, she positioned herself at the tip of a leafy arm that extended over a stream and pushed out a clutch of eggs, which the male immediately fertilized. Housed within a gelatinous mass that deters predators, protects against dehydration, and prevents fungal infections, the embryos developed for a few days on the tip of the fern before dropping into the water to continue their metamorphosis. But before they fell, scientist and photographer Jaime Culebras captured this stunning, backlit portrait.
Very little is currently known about Wiley’s glass frogs. They weren’t documented by scientists until 2006, and so far, they have only been found in the immediate vicinity of the Yanayacu Research Station. While researchers have collected adults and seen their egg clutches, which contain between 19 and 28 embryos, they have never recorded the species’ mating calls, documented parental investment behaviors, observed the tadpoles, or conducted a population assessment.
Unsurprisingly, the species is listed as Data Deficient on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. But since only six individuals were collected over the three years of field work that led to the official species description, scientists assume the population is likely quite small. “The species included in this Data Deficient category are ignored in conservation strategies,” says Culebras. “However, many scientists consider that they should be treated as an urgent conservation priority and are pushing to develop studies that allow us to know their true status.”
In the meantime, conserving the habitat around the Yanayacu Biological Station—currently the species’ only known home—is a clear priority for protecting not only Wiley’s glass frogs, but also the 19 other amphibians documented there so far.
by Bence Máté
It was dawn in Hungary’s Kiskunság National Park, and photographer Bence Máté lay still, barely breathing, on a coffin-sized floating hide. In front of him, a Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) was busy gnawing on a tree, backlit by the first rays of morning sun. Nearby, previously felled trees emerged like dock pilings from the mist-shrouded water, one of them festooned with a glowing spider web. The ethereal scene was more than just beautiful; it was a striking illustration of the idea that beavers transform their environments when they build dams, creating habitats that are utilized by many other species.
Eurasian beavers were once widespread across Europe and Asia, but the large rodents were hunted to near-extinction in the 1800s. In Hungary, the last beaver was killed in 1865. The species faced a similar fate across Eurasia, and by the beginning of the 20th century, scientists estimated there were only about 1,200 individuals left in eight relic populations.
The species’ fate began to turn around in 1922, when Sweden launched a reintroduction effort. More than 20 European countries eventually followed suit, and by 2011, the population across the continent numbered more than a million individuals. As beavers returned to the Eurasian landscape, scientists started documenting the impacts they made on their surroundings. By building dams, the animals increased water storage, reduced fire damage, and created wetlands that filter agricultural pollutants. They also boosted biodiversity—beaver-built habitats are home to more abundant and diverse species than neighboring areas.
After a 120-year absence, beavers returned to Hungary in 1985, dispersing naturally from a population that had been successfully reintroduced in Austria. Today, scientists estimate more than 3,000 Eurasian beavers live in the country, including the industrious individual Máté photographed as it engineered a richer ecosystem in Kiskunság National Park.
by Sitaram Raul
Photographer Sitaram Raul used to think of wildlife photography as something he did while traveling. But when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, he started to pay more attention to the wildlife in his own backyard. “One night, sitting on my balcony, I was looking out at a custard apple tree, and bats were coming frequently to eat the fruits,” he recalls. “The whole world was cursing bats, but I decided to observe them.” Raul spent three weeks watching the fruit bats, eventually learning to predict their behavior and identify gaps in the tree canopy where they were likely to make an entrance. At one such opening, he managed to capture this shot, perfectly framing the bat within a ring of lush, green foliage.
India is home to 12 species of fruit bats, all of which play a critical role in seed dispersal and forest regeneration. Because they are significantly larger than their Neotropical relatives, Indian fruit bats feed on a much wider range of flowers and fruits—from small eucalyptus flowers to large mangos and guavas—and are often responsible for the dispersal of old-growth and canopy tree species. A recent survey of their feeding habits revealed that the three most common species alone aid in the pollination and seed dispersal of more than 114 species of plants, many of which are economically, ecologically, and medicinally valuable.
While Raul developed a deep appreciation for fruit bats during his backyard observation sessions, the animals are often regarded as pests. Despite their ecological importance, 10 of the 12 species are classified as vermin under India’s Wildlife Protection Act and can be indiscriminately killed. Relatively little is known about fruit bat population levels in India, but surveys conducted by ecologist Shahroukh Mistry suggest that most species are dramatically declining. In the past, the animals lived in large colonies that often numbered in the thousands; today the average colony size is 500 or fewer. Additionally, more than 70 percent of the roosts Mistry visited faced some sort of threat, including deforestation and other human disturbances. To continue performing their valuable pollination and seed-dispersal roles in India, fruit bats need stronger protection—something a number of local conservation organizations are now lobbying the government to enact.
by Tom St George
Deep in a cenote on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, photographer Tom St George encountered this otherworldly, seemingly lifeless cavern, its dimly lit waters penetrated by thousands of dramatic stalactites. Inhospitable as it may appear, this flooded cave is actually far from barren. It is part of an extensive subterranean network of flooded passages, sinkholes, and caves that host a surprising diversity of fish and zooplankton, most of which are found only in the Yucatán. Many are also endangered, since the peninsula’s cenotes are threatened by development and pollution. One of these species, Antromysis cenotensis, is a tiny crustacean that plays an outsized role in its ecosystem. Included on the Mexican Red List of Species at Risk, the shrimp-like organism makes long vertical migrations as it feeds, thus moving nutrients through the water column. It is also a critically important food source for cenote fish.
In addition to hosting endemic wildlife, cenotes provide the most important source of freshwater for the region’s human inhabitants. The limestone bedrock that dominates the geology of the peninsula is very porous and can’t hold water, so there are no surface rivers in the region; the only rivers exist underground. Unfortunately, the same sieve-like rock that allows rainwater to filter down into subterranean passages also permits surface contaminants—including pesticides, wastewater from human settlements and pig farms, and other chemicals—to pass through. Today, 30 percent of the population of rural Yucatán drinks contaminated water from wells or cenotes, and only 4.2 percent of the wastewater in the state is treated.
A local indigenous group, Kana’an Ts’onot, which translates to Guardians of the Cenotes, is now fighting for the Yucatán’s underground rivers system to be recognized by the Mexican authorities as an entity with legal rights—a step they hope will lead to stricter policies regulating development, pollution, and wastewater treatment. St George, who took this photo to both highlight the incredible natural beauty of Mexico’s underwater cave systems and draw attention to the threats they face, is pulling for them to succeed.
by Bence Máté
While traveling in Romania’s Carpathian region several years ago, photographer Bence Máté came across a horrific scene. At a spawning site for common frogs (Rana temporaria), hundreds of frogs (and several toads) lay dead in the water, some still grasping partners, their hind legs notably missing. Poachers had plucked the amphibians from the pool as they attempted to breed, cut off their back legs to feed the frog-leg trade, and thrown them back into the water to die a lingering death among their spawn. “It was the cruelty that shocked me most,” says Máté, “but also the harm caused to local populations.”
Every year, millions of frogs are traded around the world as a source of food. The trade is fueled not just by the collection of wild animals on a local scale, as Máté witnessed in Romania, but also by industrial commercial farming in China and other countries. While poaching can imperil local populations, commercial farming actually poses an even greater threat to amphibians around the world. "Mass farming and international trade to supply the frog-leg industry are spreading deadly diseases and contributing to the current amphibian extinction crisis," says herpetologist and wildlife trade expert Jonathan Kolby. "Two types of pathogens in particular, amphibian chytrid fungus and ranavirus, are being spread far and wide by the trade in frog legs and have already driven dozens of population declines and extinctions."
If frog legs are to stay on the menu for humans, improved welfare and disease control measures are urgently needed to better protect amphibians globally.
by Jose Grandío
In the pre-dawn hours of a cold winter morning in the French Alps, photographer Jose Grandío lay still in the snow, waiting for a stoat (Mustela erminea) to emerge from its burrow. He had spent the past few days waiting in the same manner, without payoff, but his patience was about to be rewarded. Shortly after the sun rose, the stoat climbed out into the pale, winter light and proceeded to put on a spectacular show. “He seemed to be playing with the fresh snow that had just fallen, making sudden jumps and crawling through the snow,” recalls Grandío.
Scientists have witnessed stoats engaging in similar displays on many occasions, and they refer to the behavior as dancing, although their opinions are divided about what motivates the leaps and twists. Sometimes, the dances are performed in front of a rabbit or large bird in a seeming attempt to confuse or distract potential prey—a strategy that has proven effective in a number of documented interactions. At other times, as was the case in the display Grandío photographed, there is no prey animal in sight, and the dance seems simply to be an expression of exuberance. A third hypothesis is that the dances are actually an involuntary response to a parasitic infection, since stoats are known to be hosts for cranial parasitic worms. Whatever the interpretation of the behavior, one thing scientists have learned is that when associated with an attack on a large prey species, these displays reduce the risk of injury to the stoat—likely because they provide an element of surprise. Such a benefit could eventually reinforce the behavior, whether it was originally intentional or not.
In this particular case, the stoat leapt and danced for about half an hour before returning to his den for the rest of the day. While the impetus for his energetic display is unclear, Grandío can’t help thinking it was “something like a game for him,” a joyful response to the pleasure of pristine snow.
by David Slater
California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are iconic members of the Monterey Bay ecosystem, and photographer David Slater loves diving with them. “They rush past you with such beauty and grace that they leave you stunned,” he gushes. But during a dive last September, Slater witnessed a more somber sea lion scene. On a mucky stretch of sea floor, a dead sea lion had fallen to its final resting place, a colorful array of bat stars (Patiria miniata) strewn across its body like flowers tossed onto a grave.
Bat stars are omnivorous and frequently feed on carcasses that fall to the ocean floor. “I’ve seen video accounts of them scavenging on dead sea urchins, fishes, almost anything that is possible food,” says starfish expert Christopher Mah at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Chemoreceptors on the stars’ arms help them catch the whiff of decaying flesh and crawl in the direction of a meal. While they don’t move quickly, time-lapse video has revealed the fierce fight that ensues as the scavengers jockey for position on a carcass, prodding and pinning one another’s arms as if engaged in a slow-motion thumb-wrestling match. Once they’ve secured a feeding site, the starfish extend their stomachs onto their prey and secrete enzymes to digest the meat. “This is a slow process, by our time standards,” says Mah, “that can last hours, to days, to weeks.”
Without the benefit of time-lapse video to reveal the feeding frenzy underway, the scene looked peaceful to Slater, who was moved by the picturesque blending of life and death he happened upon. “I had never known death to be this beautiful,” says Slater, “and I was humbled to be a part of this sea lion’s fall.”
by Pål Hermansen
When photographer Pål Hermansen walked outside one brisk March morning in Ski, Norway and looked back at his house, he was dismayed. One of the outdoor lights had been left on all night, and within its bright shell, he saw the dark stains of dozens of insects, drawn to their death by the accidental beacon. As he cleaned out the fixture, Hermansen was inspired to photograph the collection of insects, hoping to shine a light on “the hidden creatures that are a foundation for our lives—creatures that we easily ignore.”
Insects are the most diverse group of organisms on Earth—scientists estimate that up to 30 million species currently exist. They are also staggeringly abundant, comprising more than half of the biomass of all animals on the planet. However, while insects still far outnumber other groups of animals, their populations have plummeted in recent decades. A 2019 paper analyzing the status and causes of these declines used the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” to summarize the crisis; climate change, deforestation, agricultural conversion, urbanization, pollution, and introduced species have all taken a toll on the planet’s insects.
While too often viewed as pests, insects perform a number of valuable functions for humans, including crop pollination, soil aeration, nutrient recycling, and disease control. They are also a critical food source for a wide variety of other species, many of which we also rely upon. As insect numbers dwindle, the potential for significant ecological and economic consequences grows. But a deeper public understanding of the decline and its ramifications may help to turn the trend around. The artfully arranged contents of Hermansen’s unintentional light trap serve as a reminder of both the plight—and the value—of these oft-unheralded inhabitants of our planet.
by Tony Wu
Three days before the full moon last July, photographer Tony Wu dove into a bay off the coast of Kagoshima, Japan, in search of a starry goby (Asterropteryx semipunctata)—a golf-tee-sized fish with bright, pin-prick dots scattered across its dark skin. He had been hoping to photograph the pretty, star-studded fish for weeks, and he expected to spend his whole dive focused on that task. But shortly after he spotted his first goby, Wu got sidetracked by a different stellar scene: A Leach’s sea star (Leiaster leachi) raised itself up onto the tips of its arms and began to spawn, shooting a Milky Way of sperm into the surrounding seawater.
Like many marine invertebrates, starfish reproduce by broadcast spawning—releasing large quantities of sperm and eggs into the water column within a short period of time. To maximize the chances of fertilization for these gametes, they synchronize their efforts with neighboring members of their species, using temperature, light, and lunar cycle cues to guide their timing.
Wu watched this particular starfish spawn for at least an hour. “At some point, I realized that the animal was not sending out gametes willy-nilly,” he says. “It timed its release of sperm for certain moments, perhaps as a reaction to current flow and strength.” As its gametes drifted off into the distance, he reflected on the experience of sharing such an intimate moment with a faceless, spineless creature. “I hope that capturing a dramatic scene depicting this species’ timeless quest for immortality can provide a way for others to see what I see—that we are all the same, despite our outward differences.”