25 Stunning Photographs of the Natural World | Science | Smithsonian
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Seljalandsfoss, pictured above, is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Dropping from a 200-foot-high cliff to a deep pool below, this unusual waterfall of the Seljalandsá River has a unique indentation in the rock face that allows visitors to hike behind the picturesque falls. Lush greenery and a wide variety of colorful wildflowers surround the falls.

As photographer Mike Reyfman describes, "Getting in touch with the natural wonders of Iceland can be a very exhilarating and enlightening experience. Located along the south coast is one of its most breathtaking waterfalls. To take a panoramic capture of the Seljalandsfoss, a photographer must be prepared for the intense mist and huge dynamic range."

The above image was the winner of the Landscapes category. (Mike Reyfman)
The Chacma baboon is a large, highly social monkey found near bodies of water throughout much of Southern Africa. the butterfly, Eurema brigitta, is abundant in the savanna and grasslands. Males of this butterfly "mud-puddle," gathering in large groups to collect nutrients from small water sources.

"One March afternoon with the Chobe was flooded, thousands of yellow butterflies appeared in a delicate swarm by the river's edge. The baboons seemed to be transfixed by the fluttering creatures. They playfully swatted and ran among them, even trying to catch them! This extraordinary sight was the highlight of our safari," says photographer Veronica Coetzer. (Veronica Coetzer)
Widely distributed along the eastern rainforest belt of Madagascar, Boophis viridis live in old growth and secondary rainforests. The males call at night from perches in the vegetation three to six feet above the ground, usually along slow-moving streams and ditches.

"Madagascar is a haven for nature photographers, with more than 90 percent of the wildlife species found exclusively on the island. The frogs that are found here are especially colorful. I photographed this beautiful specimen in the rainforest of Andasibe during the rainy reason. My guide and I spent hours searching the jungle on pitch-black night and found this tiny, one-inch frog. I hurried to take a few pictures before it jumped out of site," photographer Simone Sbaraglia explains. (Simone Sbaraglia)
Highly Honored: African Wildlife Category

The gemsbock or southern oryx is a large antelope, well-adapted to the arid environments of Namibia. Its most distinctive features are rapier-shaped horns and striking black-and-white facial markings. The dominance hierarchy of these gregarious animals is based on age and size. The young assess one another in tests of strength, and, as they grow, evenly matched individuals may have to fight to establish their rank.

"During its dry season, the Etosha pan dries out almost completely, leaving only a few remaining water holes that attract many thirsty animals. One morning, the area was packed with oryx, and one particular male was chasing and confronting every oryx in sight. My challenge was isolating a single battle among the surrounding activity. After many hours, I captured this image of two animals at the height of action," photographer Simone Sbaraglia says. (Simone Sbaraglia)
While the female jumping spider is a dull brown, the smaller male’s color is striking when viewed from the front. It is probably the most colorful species of jumping spider in Europe. The most impressive feature however, is their greatly enlarged third pair of legs used in courtship display. When a male spots a female, he raises and may audibly vibrate his legs to attract her.

“Looking for arthropods in a wild mallow bush near my home, I noticed a tiny animal only about 1/8-inch in size. As I got closer, I could just make out this spider’s outline. Attempting to get a photo took more than two hours because the spider was extremely restless. Finally, I could see that this was a male Saitis barbipes covered in pollen," explains photographer Luis Iglesias. (Luis Iglesias)
“Tinted orange by the morning sun, a soaring dune is the backdrop for the hulks of camel thorn trees in Namib-Naukluft Park," says photographer Frans Lanting. (Frans Lanting)
The Toco toucan is the largest of the toucan family. Its large bill is the main tool that allows the bird to reach into tree holes and to grasp the fruit from surrounding branches. Toucans carefully position food near the tip of their bills, then rapidly toss their heads back to throw the items into their throats without using their tongues. Their bills are also used to siphon body heat into the air to keep the toucan cool.

"While visiting the Pantanal, I spent some time in a hide at a forest water hole. A number of birds and animals came to the pool, but this toucan was the star attraction. It is a species that I have loved since childhood but never thought I would see this close. I was mesmerized by the extraordinary size and colors of the bill," explains photographer Philip Marazzi. (Philip Marazzi)
The endangered western lowland gorilla is the smallest subspecies of gorillas. They may live in the wild in equatorial Africa to about 35 years of age, and as long as 50 years in zoos.

"I just happened to get a once-in-a-lifetime shot of a mother gorilla holding a magazine as she stopped to look at a photo of her baby (sitting next to her). The book is one of the enrichment items that zookeepers put in the gorillas' enclosure. I visit the zoo almost every weekend and each time there is a new behavior, the light is different, or the gorillas have new items to play with. It takes patience, but if you go as soon as the zoo gates open, you can see the animals at their most active and avoid the big crowds," says photographer Laurie Rubin. (Laurie Rubin)
Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, Valley of Fire was dedicated in 1935. Areas of petrified wood and 3,000-year-old petroglyphs are evidence of its ancient trees and early humans. Shifting sand dunes formed the red sandstone some 150 million years ago. Uplifting and faulting of the region plus extensive erosion have created the present-day landscape.

“The Valley of Fire is one of many surreal landscapes of the American Southwest. The park is known for large, red sandstone formations that appear to be on fire when illuminated at sunrise and sunset. My explorations led me to a narrow, inconspic- uous wash where I came across a dry falls that had been carved by water over the ages. Erosion has revealed an abstract sculpture of swirling colored layers," says photographer Sean Bagshaw. (Sean Bagshaw)
Winner: Plant Life Category

The Yucatán Peninsula has very few surface rivers and lakes; the main source for water is underground. Sinkholes, or “cenotes,” are surface connections to underground rivers and extensive cave systems. Rainwater found in the cenotes is filtered slowly through the ground and is often clear and of good quality.

“While traveling to Mexico for photography and to visit the Mayan ruins, I traveled to Quintana Roo, where a landowner protects an area of cenotes and allows public exploration of the caves. This image depicts the unique, magical plant life experienced there. Although this tree and flower were underground, sunlight reached the vegetation, creating a subterranean garden," says photographer Elizabeth Carmel. (Elizabeth Carmel)
Winner: Endangered Species Category

Golden snub-nosed monkeys are native to the mountainous forests of central and south- west China. They spend most of their time in trees feeding on leaves, seeds, lichen, and fruit. The species’ numbers are dwindling mainly because of habitat loss.

Of the picture, photographer Katherine Feng remembers, "One spring, I was granted permission to join primate researchers from China’s Northwest University while they studied the behavior and habits of the golden snub-nosed monkey. As the monkeys had become habituated to the presence of humans, I could approach at a safe distance without disturbing them. I climbed up and down the mountainside looking for interesting photos. This baby monkey was only a few weeks old. He made cute faces as his mother and a juvenile monkey cuddled him.” (Katherine Feng)
The southern pig-tailed macaque is a medium- sized primate found in Southeast Asia from southern Thailand to the island of Borneo. Troops of macaques have been observed at the Kinabatangan River, the largest and longest river in the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo.

“I encountered a family of southern pig-tailed macaques feeding from the trees along the river. Several juveniles were carelessly play-fighting on branches over the water’s surface. This inter- esting behavioral shot shows a juvenile taking a sip of water while hanging upside-down," explains photographer C.S. Ling. "I give it credit for being very brave and very lucky for three reasons: firstly, the branch was hanging loosely and the macaque almost lost its footing; secondly, it is not easy to drink upside down hanging by one foot; and lastly, lurking in the river were saltwater crocodiles.” (C.S. Ling)
Winner: African Wildlife

African elephants are the heaviest land mammals, with males weighing 10,000 to 13,000 pounds, and bearing tusks that can weigh up to 100 pounds each. Both males and females use their tusks for digging and stripping bark off trees. Males also use their tusks for sparring. When two bulls of roughly equal size meet, they assess each other by intertwining trunks and may charge at each other with ears outstretched.

“One sweltering summer day, I was resting in the deep shade of a camel thorn tree at my campsite on the Savuti Channel. A bull elephant came down to the water to drink. I sat and quietly watched him until he suddenly turned to face me and charged into the water," photographer Ben Cranke describes. "Fortunately, I had my camera in my lap and was able to capture this image. I was relieved when the magnificent elephant finally settled down, quenched his thirst, and peacefully moved off.” (Ben Cranke)
The Maasai giraffe is the largest subspecies of giraffe and the tallest land mammal on Earth, with males standing 16 to 20 feet tall. Giraffes use their 18-inch tongues to reach around thorns to grasp the leaves of acacia trees. These leaves contain water, so giraffes can go for long periods of time without having to drink.

"Maasai giraffe will feed on most trees and shrubs, but acacias are their favorite. I was photographing a group of them eating the tender leaves. After taking several broad shots, I began focusing on this individual. I tried many angles, hoping to get an unusual portrait. Suddenly, the giraffe turned and looked straight at me, posing with a twig hanging out of its mouth. It was exactly what I was waiting for!”' says photographer Jayanand Govindaraj. (Jayanand Govindaraj)
Highly Honored: African Wildlife

Despite its massive bulk, this amphibious mammal moves underwater with grace, and trots on land with surprising speed. The name hippopotamus means “river horse,” originating from the species’ semi-aquatic lifestyle. Requiring water deep enough to cover their bodies, herds rest in rivers and lakes close to areas where they can graze on land. They prefer firm-bottomed river beds where calves can nurse without swimming and hippos can rest half-submerged to prevent their skin from overheating.

Says photographer Marsel van Oosten, “The hippo is regarded one of the most dangerous, aggressive, and territorial animals in Africa. This image was shot from a small boat on the Zambezi River during late after- noon; the sun was about to set as we banked near a pod of hippos. This individual was showing its giant canines during a territorial dispute with another hippo." (Marsel van Oosten)
The lion is considered an ambush predator, one that lies in wait where prey is likely to appear. Inherently more patient than some other species, they are muscular enough to wrestle down powerful prey such as buffalo, especially when hunting as a group.

“Early one morning, I saw three sub-adult lions attempting to feed on a buffalo carcass that was stuck in the mud of a lagoon. This young male had given up and had climbed out, soaking wet and covered in thick mud. He walked off and stopped nearby to drink some clean water before lifting his head to look back toward his siblings," photographer Patrick Bentley explains. "I set the ISO on my camera to 1600 to get an acceptable shutter speed, as the light was very weak. I took a few shots of him gazing intently while water dripped off his chin.” (Patrick Bentley)
One of the most active volcanoes on Earth, Kilauea is located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Big Island started to form one million years ago and is the youngest island of the 70-million-year-old Hawaiian Island- Emperor Seamount. Volcanic activity reminds us that we live on a planet whose fascinating natural processes are constantly changing.

“On an early morning shoot at the Waikupanaha ocean entry, lava from the Kilauea volcano poured into the sea. This created a huge escape of steam. As it rose, multiple vortices began spinning off the huge, billowing plume. A vortex or two is a rare sight—but when one after another kept forming, my fumbling with the lenses turned into a panicked rush to switch to my wide-angle lens. I captured the incredible scene of seven vortices in a row,” explains photographer Bruce Omori. (Bruce Omori)
Highly Honored: African Wildlife

The white-backed vulture, Africa’s most common large vulture, is highly social and can be found in flocks year-round. They are accomplished scavengers, and with their large, broad wings they can soar for hours in search of carrion. Excellent eyesight enables them to spot food from high in the air.

"The rains were late, the air was thick with swirling dust, and the wind was blowing sand. As the wind dropped, an eerie sensa- tion descended upon the waterhole. The area was littered with carcasses and vultures began to circle—first in ones and twos, but within minutes the sky was full. Their approach was almost silent as they landed," photographer Peter Delaney recalls. "The harsh midday light was not ideal, but that didn’t matter; I had waited a long time to capture this type of image." (Peter Delaney)
Highly Honored: Animal Antics Category

Females are the predominant caregivers to young lions. They nurse their own cubs and sometimes those of relatives in the pride, if litters are born close together. Weaned between 7 and 10 months, cubs depend on adults until they are at least 16 months old.

“This image was captured on the best day of photography I’ve ever had," says photographer Billy Dodson. "Two resting lionesses and two cubs occupied a termite mound under threatening early morning skies. The lesson here is that motherhood in a lion pride is truly a collective effort. Not long after this photo was taken, I realized that the loving cub was not the offspring of this lioness. I watched as the mother eventually appeared from behind tall grass, heavy with milk. The boisterous cubs were very happy to lighten her load.” (Billy Dodson)
Highly Honored: Animal Antics

Proboscis monkeys, found only in Borneo, live in coastal mangrove forests or in lowland rainforests close to freshwater rivers. These excellent swimmers have partially webbed feet that help distribute their weight when they walk on soft mud. They are primarily arbo- real, but will venture onto land occasionally to search for food. Their diet consists of leaves, seeds, unripe fruits, and sometimes insects.

“These endangered monkeys are endemic to the island of Borneo. Because of their highly restricted diet of local leaves and fruits, they can’t be kept in zoos outside of Malaysia. When we arrived in an area where the proboscis monkeys were known to visit, I watched this female examining her hand. I couldn’t help but be amused and wonder what she might have been thinking. I truly hope that steps will be taken to stop the decline of this unique species," says photographer Steve Mandel. (Steve Mandel)
Highly Honored: Endangered Species Category

The white-headed langur is among the rarest primates in Asia. Females give birth every two or three years, usually to a single, golden-orange infant. The young are thought to stay with their mother’s group for up to two years before leaving to find or start a group of their own.

"White-headed langurs are a true conserva- tion success story in China. While they once numbered only 96, their population has bounced back to more than 700, thanks to an effective strategy," explains photographer Jed Weingarten. "For the most part, these animals are very shy. When I found a mother grooming her baby in the forest, I was elated that they didn’t run away. They just looked at me and carried right on with their natural behavior, allowing me to capture a peaceful, tender moment in their lives." (Jed Weingarten)
Highly Honored: Endangered Species Category

The largest of all primates, the endangered mountain gorilla surpasses others in size and strength. Males may weigh about 450 pounds while females usually weigh half as much. Primarily folivorous (leaf eaters), they eat frequently and spend hours foraging for vegetation each day. At night, the nomadic gorillas usually sleep on the ground, creating nests out of folded leaves and branches.

"After a grueling two-hour uphill trek through a forest heavy with slippery, stinging nettle, we finally spotted a gorilla family in a clearing. I watched this female as she stretched out on the ground and lounged around. Suddenly, she turned her head, looked directly at me, and rolled her eyes! I quickly snapped this shot and felt so lucky to capture such an amazing expression," says photographer Diana Rebman. (Diana Rebman)
One of the largest species of deer, an adult male elk weight about 350 to 530 pounds. Only the stags have antlers, which start growing in the spring and are shed each year, usually at the end of winter. A soft covering known as velvet helps protect newly forming antlers in the spring.

"After waking up to an unseasonable late-May blizzard, I learned that all the roads out of the Mammoth Hot Springs area were completely blocked. When the storm finally subsided and the roads were cleared, I set off into an unexpected winter wonderland. Hours of exploring led me to this large bull elk poking through the fresh blanket of snow, looking for green foliage underneath. The encounter gave me the rare opportunity to photograph a bull in a snowy scene with velvet-laden antlers, typically seen i springtime. I removed my telephoto lens to include more of the scene. As he lifted his head, I captured the image I had envisioned," says photographer Joe Sulik. (Joe Sulik)
Highly Honored: Birds Category"

Unlike most owls, burrowing owls nest and live underground. They may dig their own holes or use those abandoned by mammals. During the spring breeding season, they will forage during the day and night.

"This picture was taken in the world’s largest swamp area, the Pantanal, during the dry season. Over the course of a whole week, I spent every sundown in a hide to witness and photograph the owls’ life," says photographer Bence Mate. "These chicks started coming out of the nest one by one and were getting ready to leave their home. The biggest photographic challenge for me was waiting for them to be out of the shade my tent created. They seemed to like using the tent’s shadows for protection from the sun." (Bence Mate)
Highly Honored: African Wildlife

The fastest land mammal in the world, the cheetah can achieve speeds of up to 65 mph. Cheetah paws are less rounded and harder than most cats’, aiding their ability to make quick turns. Semi-retractable claws provide traction during running. Females typically have a litter of three or four cubs that will spend their first year learning and practicing hunting techniques through playful games.

“I first spotted this cheetah mother and her cub on a game drive in southern Kenya. Within minutes, the pair approached our vehicle and jumped up onto the hood. They proceeded to use it as camouflage while hunting for prey. I followed them through my camera view as they played and stalked. Although the cub had an injured eye, he was not deterred from rough-housing, which entertained me for hours," says photographer Marilyn Parver. (Marilyn Parver)

25 Stunning Photographs of the Natural World

A collection of winning photographs from the Nature’s Best Photography competition, on display now at the Museum of Natural History

The best of nature photography is brought together by Nature's Best Photography in a competition that rewards photographers whose work gets at the heart of the natural world. The competition was created with the goals of increasing appreciation for the natural world, and raising awareness about conservation needs. Winners are currently on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, offering visitors a rare and striking look at the natural world.

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