Now in its 11th year, the California Academy of Sciences’ renowned BigPicture Natural World 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, chaired by wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas, 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 value and protect the remarkable diversity of life on Earth. Below, we present the winners and some of bioGraphic's personal favorites from this year’s competition.

March of the Spider Orchids by Georgina Steytler

Spider Orchids
Landscapes, Waterscapes, & Flora Finalist Georgina Steytler

Against the moody, rain-soaked backdrop of Western Australia’s southern coast, flowers from a lone white spider orchid (likely of the Caladenia longicauda species complex) emerge from the brush and unfurl their spindly arms. Photographer Georgina Steytler used a combination of visual techniques to capture the eerie essence of these plants, whose flowering bodies and scents resemble those of their would-be pollinators. Several Caladenia orchid species are what scientists call "sexually deceptive," producing so-called pseudopheromones that mimic the scent of female wasps. Paired with the orchid’s unique color and shape, these adaptations lure male wasps from afar and inspire them to try to copulate with the flower, covering the wasps with pollen in the process.

Although Caladenia orchids tend to exist as loners, rather than in clonal colonies, spider orchids thrive in the biodiverse forests of Western Australia. Depending on which taxonomist you ask, the spider orchid genus includes a staggering number of plants endemic to the region: Scientists estimate there are roughly 380 species of Caladenia orchids, with more than 185 in Western Australia alone. Because so many spider orchids are found only along the state's southern coast, local government officials have promoted recovery plans to protect critically endangered species (such as Caladenia elegans) and recover their populations in regions devastated by invasive weeds and animals, wildfire and human activity.

A Moment in the Sun by Kathleen Borshanian

Arctic Blue Fox
Terrestrial Wildlife Finalist Kathleen Borshanian

Perched on the cliffs of the Pribilof Islands, this adorable Arctic blue fox (Vulpes lagopus pribilofensis) appears completely unbothered and tranquil as it basks in the sunlight—a rare occurrence for an archipelago often shrouded in a thick blanket of fog. Arctic blue foxes are endemic to these remote islands, which emerge from the Bering Sea some 750 miles west of Anchorage. Despite their seclusion and the near-complete lack of trees, the Pribilof Islands are surprisingly biodiverse, dubbed the “Galapagos of the North” by some biologists. The archipelago is the product of repeated volcanic eruptions that began hundreds of thousands of years ago, and today it is home to northern fur seal colonies, millions of seabird nests and very few humans. Yet mammals like the Arctic blue fox have adapted over generations to the unique, treeless environment: Below the pictured fox appears to be the entrance of a sprawling maze of tunnels that form an interconnected, underground nest for these secretive mammals. Photographer Kathleen Borshanian says the dens are practically ubiquitous on the Pribilof Islands, winding their way within a few feet of the island’s sheer 1,000-foot-high basaltic cliffs, and they serve as a crucial refuge from predators and a safe haven for rearing the next generation of fox pups.

The Forest of the Monarchs by Jaime Rojo

Monarchs in Forest
Grand Prize Winner Jaime Rojo

Upon first glance, this scene looks little more than a sunlit patch of leafy trees. But those clumps hanging off branches and blanketing tree trunks are actually millions of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), huddled for warmth in one of Mexico’s famous overwintering sites. Monarchs are the only butterfly species known to make a two-way migration to avoid North America’s freezing wintertime temperatures, traveling annually from summer breeding grounds down to the warm, humid climates of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains—a journey that can stretch as far as 3,000 miles. To this day, researchers have yet to understand what triggers the monarch butterfly’s epic migration. Yet every year, between October and March, monarchs form colonies at the exact same overwintering sites located in a small stretch of Mexico’s temperate, high-altitude forests. Tens of thousands of butterflies will cluster on oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa), cozying up to generate warmth and conserve energy as temperatures dip.

Photographer Jaime Rojo captured this sunset scene on Michoacan’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and annual overwintering grounds for the iconic butterflies. Though these orange-and-white beauties are perhaps the most familiar butterfly species in the world, monarchs nevertheless face existential challenges from encroaching agriculture, climate change and deforestation of their overwintering grounds. Rojo’s image serves as both a stunning representation of the monarch’s epic migration, and a visual reminder of the close symbiosis between these butterflies and the oyamel firs they rely on to survive.

Hopeless by Alvaro Herrero

Entangled Humpback Whale
Human / Nature Finalist Alvaro Herrero

This haunting image of an entangled humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) captures the grim reality these magnificent marine mammals face in oceans around the world. Decades of aggressive whale hunting, vessel strikes, disease and entanglement in fishing gear have collectively killed thousands of humpback whales and kept many cetacean populations worldwide on the brink of extinction. Photographer Alvaro Herrero says he captured the fatal entanglement of this juvenile humpback whale in order to paint an unflinching image of the life-threatening conditions whales face along their migrations—and also to illustrate the slow, painful death of our planet at the hands of human selfishness and inactivity.

Despite the immense challenges, scientists worldwide are fighting to protect these iconic species and create safer passages for whales migrating from their tropical wintering grounds to feeding areas in the North. After widespread commercial whaling ceased in the mid-1900s, international efforts to prevent humpback extinction have brought their populations from fewer than 5,000 individuals to more than 84,000 as of 2018. Today, organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are closely monitoring their populations and regional distribution, demarcating specific marine protected areas around humpback feeding grounds, and initiating new conservation efforts focused on reducing entanglements and vessel strikes—two of the greatest threats to these cetaceans today.

Tadpole Migration by Shane Gross

Aquatic Life Winner Shane Gross

Every summer day in the lakes of Vancouver Island, hundreds of paperclip-sized western toad tadpoles (Anaxyrus boreas) wriggle their way from the relatively safe depths of the water into sunlit shallows, where algae thrives and dinner awaits. Veteran underwater photographer Shane Gross had heard of the tadpoles’ great migration and spent a summer morning exploring a lake in the northern part of the island, only to learn from a local that the tadpoles tended to surface en masse in the late afternoon. Returning to the lake some hours later, camera in tow, Gross was amazed by the numbers of tadpoles he witnessed dancing in the water, their quick movements revealing little flecks of gold on their otherwise opaque black skin. Using a tilted fisheye lens, Gross was able to capture both the tadpoles’ rapturous journey to find sustenance and glimpses of the lake’s thicket of lily pads and towering forest-covered mountains. These tadpoles seem to have found strength in numbers, swarming past attacks from water bugs and leeches to continue nibbling on food—and any other appealing organisms that passed by.

Underwater Harmony and Chaos by Franco Banfi

Northern Gannets Diving
Winged Life Winner Franco Banfi

The Ancient Greek word for “foolish” is moros, which is both a tongue-in-cheek epithet and the unfortunate namesake for the northern gannet (Morus bassanus). This Atlantic-dwelling gannet subspecies lives up to its name in more ways than one: Taxonomists apparently chose the genus name because of the gannet’s fearlessness when approached on their nesting grounds. Yet these birds are perhaps more famous for their dramatic hunting behavior, which sees flocks of gannets diving like vertical torpedoes from dozens of feet above the water’s surface. With their bills outstretched and wings folded tightly against their bodies, northern gannets can reach speeds up to 60 miles per hour and depths up to 70 feet as they jab into ocean waters to poach their prey. Following a cluster of fishing vessels off the coast of Scotland’s Shetland Islands, photographer Franco Banfi tracked an active colony of northern gannets and their feeding route, diving into the dark water to visually capture the chaos, beauty and unexpected harmony of the gannet’s daily fight for food and survival.

Good Fire by Maddy Rifka

Prescribed Burn
Human / Nature Winner Maddy Rifka

“When you hear the words ‘wildfire’ and ‘California,’ many think first of ‘devastation,’” said photographer Maddy Rifka, referring to the spate of deadly, massive wildfires that have ripped through western North America in recent years. Yet for centuries, tribal communities across the West recognized fire as a force for good. Indigenous peoples of California historically tended the land by igniting frequent, low-intensity burns, mimicking natural disturbances caused by lightning. And where fire went, life followed. By clearing fire-prone brush that might otherwise take over, these regular burns encouraged beneficial growth patterns for native plants and fruits, simultaneously maintaining biodiversity and protecting local water supplies. Unfortunately, an era of federally enforced wildfire suppression and forest mismanagement primed Western forests for the kind of severe, mass-scale burns we experience today, thus maligning fire as unequivocally “bad.”

Only in recent years have federal officials and Western scientists begun to embrace fire as a crucial component of forest management and a ritual interlocking land stewardship with Indigenous cultural practice. Steven Saiz, pictured, is a Hoopa Valley tribal member and one of many Native Americans fighting to reclaim their ancestral right to burn on California lands. In this particular blaze, Saiz pours a steady stream of fuel onto a patch of brush, coaxing the flames to spread through the dense undergrowth surrounding a Yurok Tribe elder’s home. Here, Saiz knows that this intentional form of “destruction” will eventually encourage new life on the Yurok Reservation, and protect lives from the deadly, out-of-control blazes that have too often torn apart mismanaged forestlands. To Saiz, this burn is as much a tool of ecological regeneration as it is a form of elder care.

Beauty of the Desert by Hema Palan

Snake in Desert
Terrestrial Wildlife Winner Hema Palan

Even though the Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) is known for its whip-fast speed and agility, photographer Hema Palan managed to capture a tranquil nighttime shot of a lone sand racer moving through the branches of a shrub in India’s Thar Desert. As a diurnal ambush predator, this reptile was likely settling in for a night of rest before emerging in the daylight to hunt lizards, rodents and other prey. Their pursuits can reach speeds of up to nine miles per hour, earning the sand racer its title as one of the Middle East and South Asia’s fastest snakes.

This reptile faces few predators in the Thar Desert, yet increasing human presence, mining development and commercial farming have collectively threatened the region’s fragile ecosystems. With a population density of around 215 people per square mile, the Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert in the world, and also one of the world’s smallest. Despite its size and inhospitable, arid climate, the desert is itself a refuge for a surprisingly diverse variety of endemic and endangered species, including the globally threatened great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), the mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) and the phog shrub (Calligonum polygonoides) this sand racer has taken shelter in. Fortunately, efforts to protect these and other desert dwellers have resulted in conservation practices designed to mitigate the effects of extensive livestock grazing, as well as the creation of several sanctuaries and a national park.

In Celebration by Geo Cloete

Landscape, Waterscapes and Flora Winner Geo Cloete

Wading in the tidepools off of South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, photographer Geo Cloete leveraged his vision and creative use of a fisheye lens to capture the stunning symbiosis between the ocean’s crashing waves and sea anemones: Only when there is a chance of feeding do these colorful cnidarians bloom, extending their nimble tentacles outward to ensnare plankton, crabs and tiny fish. The vehicle for their prey? The breaking waves themselves, which sweep over tidepools and their inhabitants during high tide, delivering nutrients and other microscopic organisms to the pool’s intricate food web.

Not much is known about sea anemones endemic to South Africa’s intertidal zone, perhaps in part because these polyps retract their tentacles into tight bulbs during low tide and when exposed to air, sunlight and predators. In many regions of the world, sea anemones gather in thick colony-like blankets—much like the swath illustrated by Cloete’s image—latching onto rocky outcrops in large numbers. Some group-living species from the shores of California, for example, cluster and reproduce asexually to form a quasi “army” of genetically identical anemone clones, attacking neighboring colonies as scouting polyps settle on nearby coral skeletons and rocks in search of empty space to occupy.

Northern Ghosts by Peter Mather

Photo Story Winner Peter Mather

Despite being one of the coldest and most barren places on Earth, the North American Arctic is surprisingly biodiverse. The region is famous for cold-adapted and iconic wildlife like caribou, bears and wolves, yet native Northerners know these animals to be extremely elusive, leaving behind few traces of life beyond tracks in the snow and howls in the night. To photographer Peter Mather, finding the Arctic’s transient wildlife feels like trying to pin down a ghost or apparition, which ultimately became the theme uniting Mather’s artfully rendered photo story. By placing motion-activated camera traps in the field and often leaving them over the span of months or years, Mather captured five rare visuals of wildlife in the ice-covered expanses of the Arctic, including this caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) carcass pictured on Alaska’s North Slope. He then used both flash photography and a long exposure to illustrate the fleeting presence of an Arctic fox that seemed to be as curious about the carcass as he was.

Mather’s theme of transition, ephemeral wildlife and barren landscapes perhaps subconsciously addresses the other harsh reality of life in the Arctic: Even as extreme conditions and low accessibility have kept human impact on Arctic ecosystems low, climate change and increasing demand for Arctic resources are placing unprecedented pressure on the organisms that live there. Without adequate conservation efforts and a dramatic slowing of climate change, these animals might become the very apparitions of the Arctic that the photographer depicts.

Stardust Forest by Kazuaki Koseki

Art of Nature Winner Kazuaki Koseki

Would you believe your eyes if you saw ten million fireflies before you, dancing in the skies and lighting up the forest? Photographer Kazuaki Koseki would, having spent the past seven years studying the ecology and photographing the beautiful parabolic trajectories of these seemingly magical insects in the forests of the Yamagata Prefecture. Fireflies hold particular cultural importance in Japan, where their emergence marks the changing of the seasons and is thought to be a manifestation of the souls of soldiers who died in war. The floating light trails captured in this photo were mostly created by male fireflies, who hover and emit frequent bursts of light when trying to court mates. With smaller back wings that render them flightless, female fireflies of this particular species wait patiently on the forest floor or on trees, signaling to males every few seconds with similar flashes of light. Although Koseki’s use of long exposure helped illustrate the wandering luminescence of hundreds of fireflies, he ultimately viewed these insects as his creative collaborators: “The himebotaru is an artist, who paints light in the forest,” Koseki said.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an independent magazine about nature and regeneration powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

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