Featuring an ancient horseshoe crab, fighting ibex and a forest lit by fireflies’ glow, the winners of the 59th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest reveal breathtaking scenes of animals and their fascinating behaviors.
The prestigious competition, developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London, unveiled its winners this week. This year, its international panel of judges selected the winners from a pool of 49,957 entries that spanned 95 countries.
Each winning image has been deemed well-composed and ethically obtained, but this collection of shots also calls attention to conservation issues facing species today.
“Whilst inspiring absolute awe and wonder, this year’s winning images present compelling evidence of our impact on nature—both positive and negative,” Doug Gurr, the museum’s director, says in a statement. “Global promises must shift to action to turn the tide on nature’s decline.”
The photographs that earned recognition in the contest will go on view at the museum from October 13 to June 30, 2024, and the exhibition will tour across the United Kingdom and other countries.
Below are some of the winning images, showcasing stunning views of animals and poignant scenes of human impact on the environment.
The ancient mariner by Laurent Ballesta
Horseshoe crabs are truly ancient creatures. The tri-spine species, pictured here, evolved about 100 million years ago. It has endured the extinction of dinosaurs and multiple ice ages, but now, habitat destruction and overfishing are threatening its survival. Of the four species of horseshoe crabs on Earth, the tri-spine horseshoe crab is the only one marked endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But in the protected waters off the coast of the Philippines’ Pangatalan Island, the species has some hope. French marine biologist and photographer Laurent Ballesta traveled to the site to document ocean life—and for his image of this horseshoe crab, he earned the grand prize in the contest. Ballesta, who also won the grand prize in 2021, is just the second photographer to win the contest more than once.
“To see a horseshoe crab so vibrantly alive in its natural habitat, in such a hauntingly beautiful way, was astonishing,” says Kathy Moran, chair of the judging panel, in the statement. “This photo is luminescent.”
Horseshoe crabs, as Moran notes in the statement, are critical for human health. The animals’ blue blood is used to test vaccines for bacterial contamination. But their utility is one of the reasons horseshoe crabs are hunted by humans, putting them at risk.
In this image, the creature—which is more closely related to spiders and ticks than to crabs—moves across the mud, trailed by three juvenile golden trevally fish in search of food that might be revealed by the horseshoe crab’s motion.
“The photo’s technical challenge was to find the right speed and aperture, because my wish was to freeze the calm horseshoe crab but let the little fish not be frozen, to show how excited they are,” Ballesta tells BBC News’ Jonathan Amos. “I wanted to show this contrast between them—one that was powerful and slow, and the others speedy and fragile.”
Alpine exposure by Luca Melcarne
French nature photographer Luca Melcarne is also a professional mountain guide—and he’s “addicted to the cold,” per the museum.
Melcarne lives and works at Vercors Regional Natural Park in the French Alps and often photographs the region’s wildlife.
To find this ibex, he wanted to be in the animal’s territory early in the morning. He skied for six hours to reach the area and spent the night in a temporary shelter. When the majestic creature appeared, Melcarne had to thaw the camera with his breath before snapping the photo.
Face of the forest by Vishnu Gopal
In the swampy, Brazilian rainforest near Tapiraí, São Paulo, Indian photographer Vishnu Gopal spotted some hoof tracks in the ground. He waited patiently for one hour before his subject appeared: a lowland tapir, a plant-eating relative of horses and rhinoceroses, sporting a long nose trunk. Gopal captured the animal’s portrait using a long exposure and torchlight.
The image calls attention to the threats tapirs face, such as illegal hunting, habitat loss and collisions with vehicles. The ancient mammals, believed to have changed little over tens of millions of years, are important seed-dispersers that support forest growth.
Owls’ road house by Carmel Bechler
Beside a busy road, two barn owls look out the window of an abandoned concrete building.
Seventeen-year-old Israeli photographer Carmel Bechler won the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for this image. He and his father drove to this spot, where Bechler had seen a barn owl the year prior, and hid in the car to not disturb the birds. The young photographer used a long-exposure technique to capture the light of passing vehicles.
“I hope to share with my photography that the beauty of the natural world is all around us, even in places where we least expect it to be,” Bechler says in a statement.
Israel is home to the densest barn owl population in the world, according to a statement. A national program provides nest boxes for the birds that farmers can place near their crops, a pest control strategy that has reduced the need for rodenticide.
Silence for the snake show by Hadrien Lalagüe
In a moment caught by a camera trap, five gray-winged trumpeter birds watch as a threatening boa constrictor slithers by. The snake, which was more than nine feet long, could have eaten the birds.
For six months, French biologist and photographer Hadrien Lalagüe visited and maintained his camera trap in the rainforest near the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. He protected his equipment from humidity and plastic-eating ants, and he righted any damage to his setup from poachers.
Last gasp by Lennart Verheuvel
Dutch photographer Lennart Verheuvel captured an orca lying stranded on a beach in the Netherlands. Research on the creature after its death revealed it had been malnourished and very sick.
“This moment happened last year when an orca beached close to my home at the coast of Zeeland in the Netherlands,” Verheuvel wrote on Instagram. “I went out there, and when the evening was falling, I got this picture.”
Orcas and dolphins in European waters have some of the highest concentrations of chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in their bodies, compared to other cetaceans worldwide. Though PCBs were banned in a 1986 international agreement, they can stick around in the environment for a long time, reducing the breeding success of whales and dolphins and weakening their immune systems.
“I hope [the photo] helps to bring attention to the challenges that even an apex predator like an orca is facing nowadays,” the photographer added on Instagram.
Hippo nursery by Mike Korostelev
In South Africa’s Kosi Bay, a mother hippopotamus and her two calves rest in clear, shallow waters. Hippos are slow to reproduce, typically birthing one calf every two to three years. The young stay with their mothers until about the age of seven.
Russian photographer Mike Korostelev kept a safe distance from the hippos while capturing this shot. He spent only 20 seconds under the water with the animals, as he did not want to stress the mother or the offspring.
Birds of the midnight sun by Knut-Sverre Horn
Norwegian photographer Knut-Sverre Horn captured this majestic image of black-legged kittiwakes, a type of gull.
From inside an abandoned fish processing factory in Vardø, Norway, Horn watched as the birds, which were nesting on a windowsill, became illuminated by the low summer sun as midnight approached.
Kittiwakes spend almost their entire lives on the open ocean, returning to the shore only to nest. But as pollution and warming oceans drive food shortages, the birds are increasingly spending time closer to humans.
Lights fantastic by Sriram Murali
When twilight arrives in India’s Anamalai Tiger Reserve, small bursts of light begin to appear in the air. Soon, these individual beacons are joined by others, and across the forest, the expanding glow pulses in unison.
Indian photographer and dark sky advocate Sriram Murali captured this ethereal light, emitted by fireflies, through a series of 50 long exposures, each lasting 19 seconds. This image, a composite of multiple shots, shows the insects’ light spanning 16 minutes.
The art of courtship by Rachel Bigsby
From a boat, U.K. photographer Rachel Bigsby captured a pair of gannets in courtship at the Isle of Noss in Scotland. Each summer, the island’s gannet population balloons to 22,000 as the birds arrive for breeding. This duo was “isolated on a lower ledge, intertwining their necks and framed by streaks of guano,” Bigsby says in a statement.
Gannets were hit hard by the 2022 avian flu, which decimated domestic and wild bird populations across the globe. But now, the large seabirds appear to be recovering. A study published in May found that the birds’ characteristic blue irises turn to black after they survive the avian flu.
Whales making waves by Bertie Gregory
U.K.-based photographer Bertie Gregory captured this drone shot depicting a peculiar behavior of orcas: As one, these cetaceans will hunt by creating waves in the water that knock a seal off an ice floe. However, “with rising temperatures melting ice floes, seals are spending more time on land, and the behavior of ‘wave washing’ may disappear,” according to a museum statement.
Gregory witnessed this behavior while on a sea expedition looking for orcas through high winds and freezing temperatures. “We spent every waking minute on the roof of the boat, scanning,” he says in a statement.
Life on the edge by Amit Eshel
A pair of Nubian ibex clash in a dramatic fight on the side of a cliff in Israel’s Zin Desert. As mating season approaches, male ibexes' bodies prepare for confrontations with other bachelors: Parts of their coats darken, and their neck muscles get thicker. In these intense showdowns, the animals will ram their heads together, sometimes breaking their horns.
Photographer Amit Eshel of Israel witnessed these two ibex from a vantage point at the top of a cliff. He used a wide-angle lens to capture the battle and its backdrop. After about 15 minutes, the fight ended, and neither ibex had sustained serious injury.