Royal Society Photo Contest Winners Capture Breathtaking Details of Our Rapidly Changing World

Winning photos capture moments of stark change in the natural world in the Royal Society’s second annual contest

"Butterflies and caiman," by Mark Cowan. Special commendation: Butterflies suck the salt off of an Amazonian caiman's head. Mark Cowan, via Royal Society Publishing
"Speeding Divergence," by Prasenjeet Yadav. Special commendation (publisher’s choice): Scientists have found that wind farms in the northern Western Ghats of India have discouraged large raptors from hunting, causing local Superb fan-throated lizards to develop new traits. Prasenjeet Yadav, via Royal Society Publishing
"In a world without color" by Tane Sinclair-Taylor. Winner of the ecology and environmental science category: A single, yellow juvenile clown fish floats before a field of bleached sea anemone, which has lost its color because of elevated ocean temperatures. Tane Sinclair-Taylor, via Royal Society Publishing
"Departing eagle ray," by Nick Robertson-Brown. Winner of the evolutionary biology category: An eagle ray swims over a reef, carrying its prey. Nick Robertson-Brown, via Royal Society Publishing
"Fubuki (snow storm)," by Alexandre Bonnefoy. Special commendation: A group of Japanese macaques huddling together in a pile called a "saru-dango" (meaning "monkey-dumpling") to keep warm during a snowstorm. Alexandre Bonnefoy, via Royal Society Publishing
"Les artistes," by Tegwen Gadais. Runner up in the ecology and environmental science category: A group of Gentoo penguins on South Georgia's Royal Bay "decorating" their nests with feces. The amount of poop these penguins produce means they have to move to new nesting grounds every season. Tegwen Gadais, via Royal Society Publishing
"In Search of Food," by Jonathan Diaz-Marba. Runner up in the behavior category: A shot from inside the ribcage of a large mammal as a group of griffon vultures peck at it for food. Jonathan Diaz-Marba, via Royal Society Publishing
"Carbon nanotube jellyfish," by Clare Collins. Special commendation: While this photo may look like a swarm of jellyfish, it depicts carbon nanotubes grown in a particular formation. Clare Collins, via Royal Society Publishing
"Dancing with stars," by Imre Potyó. Overall winner and winner of the behavior category: A swarm of mating Danube mayflies taken from the bank of the Rába River. Once the flies have mated and laid their eggs upstream, they die. Imre Potyó, via Royal Society Publishing
"The spiraled snake axis," by Tyler Square. Runner up: in the micro-imaging category: This image of a one-day-old African house snake fetus shows it still has vestigial features, like gills and muscle segments, that will eventually form its spine. Tyler Square, via Royal Society Publishing
"Polychaetous worm with engine and wagons," by Fredrik Pleijel. Runner up in the evolutionary biology category: The trainworm is named for its "carriages" – segments of its body that serve different bodily functions, including digesting, moving, and reproducing. Some of them can even be detached. Fredrik Pleijel, via Royal Society Publishing
"In balance," by María Carbajo Sánchez. Winner in the micro-imaging category: A microscopic orb of activated carbon shot with an electron microscope. These are often used to filter water for waste treatment in power plants. María Carbajo Sánchez, via Royal Society Publishing

From a swirling dance of mating mayflies to a lone clownfish swimming amongst a field of bone-white sea anemones, the top photos chosen for the Royal Society Publishing’s second annual nature photography contest showcase small but significant moments in a rapidly-changing world. While these images might not seem earth-shattering, their subtle subjects inspire new ways of looking at the natural world.

Danube mayflies are among the world’s shortest-lived species, but for decades many scientists studying the great European river thought the insects might have left their namesake for good. During the 20th century, the Danube and many of its smaller tributaries became so polluted that the delicate mayflies could no longer thrive in the river’s waters. Thanks to recent efforts to clean and reclaim the river from pollution, however, the mayflies have once again begun swarming the night skies, as captured in Imre Potyó’s contest-winning photograph, “Dancing with stars.”

“For me, the mass swarming of Danube mayflies is one of the most exciting phenomenon in nature,” Potyó, an environmental researcher, says in a statement. “The life of an adult mayfly is very short. They hatch from their juvenile aquatic form, mate in this fantastic spectacle, and then perish. It’s difficult to capture as their mating swarms are unpredictable and can last only a couple of hours. For me this shot captures the fantastic energy and chaos of the mayflies and the mood of the night time too.”

Potyó’s photograph, which also won first place in the contest’s behavior category, captures the moment that the female mayflies begin their flight upstream to deposit their eggs after mating. Once their latest clutch has been laid, the exhausted insects plummet into the water and drown. Yet, as judge and award-winning nature photographer Alex Badyaev says in a statement, the juxtaposition between the fleeting lives of these endangered insects and the night skies that trigger their mating rituals is what made Potyó’s photo stand out.    

“The winning image combines ephemerality with constancy and emergence with predictability,” Badyaev says in a statement. “In doing so, it captures the essence of this species’ natural history – an explosive, once-in-a-lifetime, mating dance of one of the world’s shortest-lived animals triggered and revealed by the millions-of-years old light of distant stars”.

While the mayflies might represent a triumph of conservation, Tane Sinclair-Taylor’s photograph of a yellow clownfish against a background of bleached sea anemones shows the flipside of humanity’s affect on the natural world. This summer, scientists announced that many of the world’s largest and most important coral reefs were experiencing the largest bleaching event in history, most likely due to rising temperatures and acidity in the ocean due to climate change. The photograph won first place in the contest’s evolutionary biology category.

The other two winning images showed off more of a beautiful side to the natural world. Nick Robertson-Brown’s photograph of an eagle ray swimming off with a caught fish off the Cayman Islands secured a win in the ecology and environmental science category, while María Carbajo Sánchez’s shot of a microscopic orb of carbon balanced on the edge of the nutshell it was carved from took home the top prize in the micro-imaging category.

All four winning photos, as well as many of the contest’s top entries, will be on public display at the Royal Society’s London headquarters on September 17 and 18.

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