BMC Ecologyimage competition 2014: the winning images
© Harold et al., licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 18 July 2014
Accepted: 21 July 2014
Published: 29 August 2014
BMC Ecology showcases the winning entries from its second Ecology Image Competition. More than 300 individual images were submitted from an international array of research scientists, depicting life on every continent on earth. The journal’s Editorial Board and guest judge Caspar Henderson outline why their winning selections demonstrated high levels of technical skill and aesthetic sense in depicting the science of ecology, and we also highlight a small selection of highly commended images that we simply couldn’t let you miss out on.
“There is grandeur in this view of life” . This snippet from On the Origin of Species is taken from the famous passage where Darwin expresses his own wonder at the variety of life on earth, stating “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”.
Although this phrase is more commonly associated with the field of evolution than ecology, the two are undoubtedly intertwined. Perhaps a better quotation could have been taken from earlier in this same passage where he describes a “tangled bank” of interacting species. Yet, the proximity of these two ideas in this part of the book speaks a lot about their connectedness.
No discussion about our relationship with the natural world would be complete without a passing nod to Darwin, and the brief sentence above encapsulates nicely how a holistic perspective on ecological processes can elevate the study of natural history into something grand.
This was, in part, our motivation for launching the first BMC Ecology image competition in July 2012 . By opening up a perspective on the science of ecology to every researcher on the planet, we hoped to capture a grand perspective of life on earth, its interconnectedness, and its wonder. We hope that, in some small part, we approximated this last year, and we hope to have built on this again.
For this year’s competition, we are very pleased to have writer and journalist Caspar Henderson act as guest judge to choose an overall winner, runner-up and some highly commended images amongst the incredible selection submitted. Caspar has written extensively on a number of scientific and environmental issues, and was most recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books for his Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary. He is now working on A New Map of Wonders.
His nominated charity of choice for this year is Trees for Life , a foundation established in 1989 with the aim of restoring Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest. The ultimate aim of the charity is to raise enough money to restore a region of 1,000 square miles of mountains and glens with re-wilding of native flora and fauna. Currently an area that has suffered much environmental degradation, the project aims to restore native woodland cover and eventually wildlife including wild boars (Sus scrofa) and beavers (Castor fiber).
As well as our guest judge, the Editorial Board of BMC Ecology were also on hand to pick their favourite category winners for each section, blinded to the identity of each entrant. More than 300 individual images were submitted to the competition this year, depicting some form of ecological interaction from every continent on earth.
We hope you enjoy them.
“How have all [the] exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected?” So asked Charles Darwin in 1859, articulating one of the central questions of ecology half a dozen years before the term was even coined. How could such “beautiful co-adaptations” have arisen in every part of the organic world?
Darwin’s answer, subtle and complex, helped make the discipline of ecology possible. And for more than 150 years those who call themselves ecologists have been unpicking astonishing complexity and pattern within living systems. There may be (in the timeworn and not always helpful phrase) a “struggle for existence” in the living world; but there is also so much more. In its stupendous productivity and capability to generate variation, Life presents a spectacle for which a description coined by Pliny the Elder more than 1800 years before Darwin is no less apt: “the great variety of nature at play” .
All those who have taken part in this competition have produced work that contributes to a great tradition of enquiry and analysis that is contemporary ecology. The best work often shows that new phenomena - sometimes startling, sometimes beautiful and sometimes both - are always there to be found with the keenest eye, the sharpest act of attention. At a time of exceptionally rapid change to the non-human systems upon which all life depends, such work was never more important, and shows that while we may have great cause for concern, there is also no end to marvels.
So congratulations to the winner Petra Wester and runner-up Letizia Campioni, and all those whose photographs are highly commended. Your work shows particularly high levels technical skill in photography and/or aesthetic sense (and often both), as well as illuminating fascinating and diverse questions. But well done all who took part. This world is not all about winning competitions. We are all hear to wonder, and learn.
At first glance, this image of a Namaqua rock mouse (Aethomys namaquensis, Muridae) getting dusted with pollen of the Pagoda Lily (Whiteheadia bifolia, Hyacinthaceae) might not appear to be particularly striking. But this is an image that is much more than it at first appears. In contrast to last year’s winning image, of an evolutionary adaptation driven by the avoidance of death, this year’s winner offers a fascinating window into a highly unusual evolutionary game in which mutual benefits aid the struggle for survival and reproduction. We tend to think of insects, and occasionally birds, when we think of pollination ecology, and this winning image therefore serves as a reminder of the variety of different ways in which nature can converge on the “beautiful co-adaptations” that so fascinated Darwin:
“The picture was taken at night during a study of the pollination ecology of the Pagoda Lily. For the first time nocturnal rodent pollination was observed and photographed under natural conditions in the Northern Cederberg area of South Africa. Field studies and experiments showed that the flowers of Whiteheadia bifolia are visited at night by Namaqua rock mice. The mice were observed licking the extremely viscous nectar while being dusted with pollen around the snout and touching the stigmas of the flowers without destroying them. W. bifolia has characters of the rare rodent pollination floral syndrome such as visually inconspicuous, bowl-shaped flowers near the ground, stiff stamens, easily accessible nectar and a weak nutty scent. No other visitors were observed during the day or night.”
Parental care is at the heart of this wonderful portrait of an adult Black-browed albatross (Thelassarche melanophrys) feeding its chick. Offspring rearing comes in many guises in the animal kingdom, defined by a complex interplay of trade-offs between investment and return. Many arthropods, for example, produce a huge abundance of offspring, left to fend for themselves from the point of birth in the hope that some will survive. In stark contrast, long-lived animals such as albatross—who often live to around 70 years of age—invest heavily in the survival of a single chick each year, regurgitating food until they are ready to fledge. The gorgeous detail of this image also serves to highlight fascinating adaptations to life foraging on the wing – the pronounced nostril, or naricorn, that guides saline solution from the salt gland, and the tooth-like structures at the base of the bill—all features for survival in a maritime environment. Although currently not endangered, ever declining populations of these majestic creatures is a cause for concern, particularly in light of evidence that human practices may partly be to blame . The work of ecologists like Letizia Campioni in monitoring and understanding these populations can therefore not be underestimated:
“My field of research is focused on the study of long-lived pelagic seabirds. Specifically I am working on Black-browed albatross (Thelassarche melanophrys) nesting in dense colonies on New Island (North-west Falkland I.). One aim of my work is monitoring the demography of Black-browed albatross populations. Our objective is to follow the whole population during the different phases of the breeding season, recording breeding pair success and fledgling success.”
Behavioural and physiological ecology
Of all the section categories, the Behavioural and Physiological Ecology section was by far the most popular in the competition, representing a full third of all images submitted. This may be due in part to a tendency for the eye to be drawn to portraits of single species, rather than viewing whole communities or ecosystems of interacting organisms. It may also reflect that these types of images are inherently less difficult to capture. But this is not to take anything away from this category, as the winning image from Bernardo Segura of the Laboratory of Fragmented Landscapes (LEAF) at the University of Chile attests (Figure 3). This strikingly dynamic moment in which a Camponotus morosus ant comes under attack from a parasitoid phorid fly is captured in astonishing detail, as Segura explained in the accompanying text:
This moment, the first report of a parasitoid attacking Camponotus morosus, or any Camponotus ant in Chile, clearly made an impression on Section Editor and judge David Hughes, himself an ant ecologist:
“Obviously a very beautiful photo but I enjoyed how the description detailed the competition between ants and the chemical ecology; and how the parasitoid was taking advantage of this. It is really impactful because it highlights how organisms have multiple competing ecological pressures (in this case competition for food/space and parasite pressure).”
Community, population and macroecology
Few images submitted to the competition this year managed to depict as many ecological interactions in one frame as that submitted by Andrew J. Crawford of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia (Figure 4). Taken on the slopes of Cerro Chucantí, the highest point in the Maje Mountain Range of eastern Panama, the image shows a crab spider preying upon a euglossine bee, while a long-tailed skipper butterfly looks for nectar on the same flower. There is so much happening in this one image, that it is easy to miss some of the finer details that make this shot so special, as Dr Crawford explains:
Not only do the vivid hues of flower, spider and pollen combine beautifully with the iridescence of the stricken bee, taken as whole the image captures a fleeting snapshot in miniature of the many community-level interactions that take place on other flowers, other habitats and other ecosystems on a global scale.
Conservation ecology and biodiversity research
As a proportion of all the images entered into this year’s image competition, marine ecosystems were perhaps the most underrepresented, with only around 5% of entries depicting an ecosystem that covers some 70% of the globe. This may partly reflect the logistical difficulties of taking images underwater, but there is also a good chance that it may be due to a more widespread disconnection of humans with this type of environment. As one of the Co-ordinating Lead Authors (CLAs) on a chapter in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report , Section Editor Josef Settele is well aware of the threat posed to these marine habitats, which often reflect some of the richest biological diversity found on the planet:
“As the year 2014 experiences a highlight in the publication of the new IPCC report, and as corals are highlighted there as being among the most threatened systems under climate change, I felt that the example presented here sets an important spotlight on what is at stake and is not accessible (literally and thus emotionally) to the vast majority of people. Furthermore biodiversity hotspots like the Philippines and its surrounding seas deserve far more attention.”
University of Queensland PhD student Catherine Kim’s depiction of coral reef biodiversity was taken as part of the Catlin Seaview Survey expedition to Tubbataha Natural Park of the Philippine waters of the Sulu Sea (Figure 5). A key aim of surveys such as this is to bring this largely unseen diversity to the attention of the public, through the use of easily accessible interfaces based on software that is widely used by the general public, as Catherine explains:
Landscape ecology and ecosystems
Landscape ecology is all about space. Specifically, how the spatial relations between different organisms and their environment affects their patterns of distribution and abundance. Capturing the essence of this discipline visually is not easy, and so Benjamin Blonder from University of Arizona should be congratulated for his image of vegetation growing in a strangely uniform pattern in an endorheic, or closed-drainage, basin in Death Valley, California (Figure 6). Although this ecosystem would appear to be almost denuded of biological diversity, Dr Blonder, a runner-up in last year’s image competition, reminds us that ecosystems are often anything but static entities:
Section Editor Michel Baguette was equally impressed by the variety of ecosystems that the image depicts in this inhospitable part of the world, and the adaptations that species must exhibit in order to survive there:
“I am puzzled by the regular organization of the vegetation, typical of plants growing on a poor soil. I also like the juxtaposition of different ecosystems (desert, lake, mountains).”
Theoretical ecology and models
When it comes to communicating the science of ecology to non-specialists, the theoretical side of the discipline is often overlooked in favour of studies involving charismatic species. This is perhaps understandable, but belies the fact that so much of ecology is underpinned with strong theoretical and mathematical foundations. In the light of this, we were delighted to receive this image from Kyle Harrington, a postdoctoral scientist at Brandeis University, Dynamical and Evolutionary Machine Organization in the US, which was eventually chosen as the Section winner for Theoretical Ecology and Models (Figure 7). This striking collage of public domain images with some of the most interesting results from a series of computational simulations on the coevolution of prey camouflage and predator vision is not only aesthetically pleasing, but displayed a wonderful sense of creativity beyond only the output of a simulation. Section Editor Mike Bonsall was impressed by this combination, which we hope will be a benchmark for entries to this Section in future competitions:
For those that are still unsure of the theoretical underpinnings of the model, you can read more in a recent publication by Dr Harrington , which he explains a little more about here:
“Prey patterns are produced by a developmental process inspired by chemical morphogenesis, using a technique called genetic programming. Predators use a model of visual attention inspired by human neurophysiology. We simulate the coevolutionary interactions between predators and prey, where predators are rewarded for detecting prey, while prey are rewarded for avoiding predation. By simulating coevolution over many generations we observe the transition from patterns with no prior bias for their environmental context, to the emergence of camouflaged prey patterns.”
Some biomes are harsher than others, and conditions don’t come much more hostile to life than eking out an existence in Antarctica and the sub- Antarctic islands. King penguins, for example, endure extremes of cold in addition to long foraging trips to ensure adults and offspring alike are fed well enough to endure the long winters. This beautifully composed image by previous category winner Laëtitia Kernaléguen from Deakin University captures the adaptation of an iconic species in this region to both the extreme cold, and the threat of predators (Figure 8). The indeterminable scale of the image is what gives it such power – as viewer, we can’t know how many juvenile penguins have congregated in this group, but we know their numbers are vast. Adult birds stand in stark contrast, their morphology adapted more to underwater hunting than thermal insulation, their vast outnumbering by juveniles only serving to heighten the sense of burden and overwhelming responsibility that parents must have to provide for their young. The sense of serenity this picture conveys is perhaps what is most surprising—and heartening—given the extremes of hardship they must endure.
The natural world can sometimes seem a brutal place, but there is also beauty in abundance. Not only in the colour, form and variety of organisms but in their relations, in something more than just aesthetics. Of course, as viewers we can’t help but see these images through anthropogenic eyes—but that’s ok. Each of the facets that makes an image wonderful, shocking, or awe-inspiring will have been the result of the ecological and evolutionary processes that place them in our view, and it is the skill of the person that captures this moment that makes it so special.
So it is that in selecting only those images that struck a chord with the judges, we know that much astonishing variety has had to be discarded. The following selection of highly commended images is therefore an attempt to provide a flavour of the extraordinary quality of entries this year, and hint at the complexity of ecological processes happening on earth. From the sunlight bursting through the wings of swallowtail butterflies crowded around a mineral deposit [Additional file 1], to the incredible fluorescent orange of a bacterial/cyanobacterial crust community in an anchialine pond of the Hawaiian Islands [Additional file 2], spectacular colouration has always been a big part of what makes a successful image in nature. That the latter is formed by micro-organisms is particularly pleasing since, relative to their ubiquity in nature, this group remains largely forgotten in depictions of the natural world.
A sense of sheer joy is coupled with the ever-present danger posed by predators in a less-colourful, but no less spectacular, image of spirited gelada baboons as the sun sets on the Ethiopian Highlands [Additional file 3]. This species roams in large groups with complex social structures, and it is always difficult not to see some human-like qualities among these populations. This is only exacerbated if we examine our closer relatives, the great apes, in more detail. A wonderful, colourful portrait of a female chimpanzee and her infant demonstrates this well, as the infant gazes back at us with knowing curiosity [Additional file 4]. Harvard University ecologist Alain Houle took the image 25 metres up a tree in Kibale National Park, Uganda, as part of his postdoctoral research into the relationship between contest competition and the nutritional quality of wild fruits which, as he explains, was by no means a straightforward task: “It was my desire to climb the tree crowns to observe the chimpanzees’ behaviors in details, I was seriously warned by all primatologists and authorities of the National Park that this attempt would be risky (climbing tropical trees) and very dangerous (because chimpanzees would respond aggressively to my presence in the same fruit tree)….I proved during my research study that wild chimpanzees that are habituated to human observers on the ground are tolerant to, and most importantly do not alter their natural behaviors in the presence of, human observers in the canopy.”
Hands-on parental care is not just restricted to the higher primates, and there is certainly a great deal of variety of care practices in nature that makes for interesting imagery. Sphecid wasps such as this mating male and female Sphex latreillei [Additional file 5], adorned in their luxurious red coats, continually provide fresh food for their developing larvae who remain out of sight, buried in a burrow . In contrast, many species of Hemipteran insects, characterised by their sucking mouthparts, will leave their offspring to fend for themselves after eggs are laid on a host food plant [Additional file 6].
One primate that takes a lighter attitude to its offspring is the slender loris, its surprised gaze nicely captured by Sayantan Das of University of Mysore [Additional file 7]. The juvenile in this picture has been left in a ‘parking spot’ in a hidden location by its mother, who leaves to forage for food in the night. Lorises are well adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle, using their large eyes to hunt for insect prey. One hopes that the juvenile in this photograph soon recovered from the inconvenience of staring directly into the barrel of the camera’s flash gun. Night hunters make a habit of keeping well hidden, especially during the day, as these curious Spotted Owlets (Athene brama) roosting in the hollow of a tree attest [Additional file 8].
The ability to hide in plain sight is something that the arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) does best, blending into their snowy background with a white winter coat to evade predators. However, the transition between seasons can leave individuals vulnerable to predation until their coats change to match their conditions [Additional file 9]. The ancient arms race between predator and prey was a popular subject in this year’s competition, captured with wonderful depth of field in this image of an oriental garden lizard contemplating its next meal [Additional file 10]. Parasitism was a less prevalent subject matter, but an image that really stood out in this context was of two water fleas (Daphnia magna) and their differing fates [Additional file 11]. Nina Scholz of the University of Konstanz, whose work on Daphnia has been previously published in BMC Ecology, explains the impact that parasitism has on these tiny crustaceans: “One of these villains is Pasteuria ramosa, a bacterial parasite castrating its host after successful establishment…The comparison of a healthy (left) and a heavily infected (right) female reveals the consequences of parasite invasion: while the uninfected animal holds developing neonates in its brood chamber, this chamber is empty in the infected animal [which] turn reddish in color. After the death of the host, spores will be released from the carcass and consequently be ingested by new hosts, completing the horizontal transmission and starting a new life cycle.”
Inter- and intra-specific conflict in many guises was well represented in a number of categories, and the judges were particularly drawn to a somewhat uneven contest between hippos in Amboseli National Park, Kenya [Additional file 12], and a much more static—but no less illustrative—image of the struggle for space between zoanthids and Barnacles in this intertidal community [Additional file 13]. Space may not be at a premium on the Kenyan savannah, but for the wildebeest depicted in this spectacular picture-postcard landscape from Graeme Shannon of Colorado State University [Additional file 14], avoiding predators is very much a priority. Another highly-commended image from the lens of Dr Shannon makes this gruesomely, awesomely clear [Additional file 15].
Lions play a crucial role as top predators in keeping populations of herbivores in check, and while this dynamic image may at first glance show lions at their most fearsome, their prey was in fact bait, luring them toward wildlife monitors: “This image was captured in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa during a management operation to dart and anesthetize the male lion on the left of the photo… Maintaining a healthy population of lions requires collecting detailed data on genetics, body weight, condition and disease.”
Crucial monitoring work like this clearly struck a chord with the judges, with our Section Editors also impressed by another of overall runner-up Letizia Campioni’s work on populations of Black-Footed Albatross [Additional file 16]. In contrast to the portrait of Albatross and chick (Figure 2), this category winner exhibited more of a reportage style – something that clearly caught the eye of Section Editor David Hughes: “Most of the images were behavior; but this one captured quite a number of excellent elements. First was behavior of course, but then there was field work and mapping and the collection of samples. It was a pleasing mix and impactful as it communicates what many of us do out in the field.”
Another image of work in the field was highly commended by Conservation Ecology and Biodiversity Research Section Editor Josef Settele, depicting the work of conservation scientists in monitoring the spread of viral diseases in bats and how they may impact on humans [Additional file 17]. Here, he explains the importance of this type of research: “The picture shows real enthusiasm for the conservation of biodiversity, as well as realism by not ignoring the downsides this sometimes is believed to have. The researcher is well prepared technically and very dedicated mentally to tackle important problems, like the spread of diseases through organisms which are endangered in order to find real solutions for conflicting interests.”
Other depictions of man’s contact with the natural world were equally impressive, such as a creative montage of images undertaking field work in coastal areas of western India [Additional file 18], and a distressed young bird in the hands of its rescuer [Additional file 19]. A charging horde of bright blue soldier crabs (Mictyris longicarpus) marching through the aerial roots of the mangrove Avicennia marina also serves as a timely reminder of the benefits that a closer association of man with nature can bring [Additional file 20]. Matthew Nitschke of the University of Queensland explains “Soldier crabs roam across mudflats, feeding on detritus and the microphytobenthos. Due to their behavioural and feeding ecology, they can potentially serve as important biomarkers. An analysis of soldier crab physiology can provide information on heavy metal pollution in compromised waterways. This will prove especially useful when conventional water sampling methods cannot detect low concentrations of pollutants.”
The rapid pace of human population expansions and their inevitable collision with the natural world was the focus of a number of entries, particularly in the Conservation Ecology and Biodiversity Research, and while many served as a salutary warning, reminding the viewer of the negative impact of the Anthropocene era, two images in particular stood out for the positive message they conveyed. The first depicts a stricken Cory’s shearwater fledgling (Calonectris diomedea) on a tarmac road in Tenerife [Additional file 21]. Light pollution from streetlamps disorient young birds when they first leave the nest, causing widespread mortality from traffic collisions and predators. However, as Airam Rodríguez of Estación Biológica de Doñana CSIC explains, there is a more heartwarming side to this story “To mitigate light pollution-induced mortality rescue campaigns are conducted every fledging season by local governments or NGOs asking for implication of the general public. Thanks to this effort about 90% of rescued birds are successfully released into the wild, giving them a second chance.”
In a similar vein, at first glance Benjamin P. Y-H. Lee’s aerial photograph of a major highway carving its way through dense forest on the outskirts of Singapore [Additional file 22] appears to be a depressing scene of human encroachment into natural habitats. But look closer and you will see that the bridge spanning the road is a wildlife overpass connecting two rainforest fragments of a nature reserve “Rainforest afforestation on the overpass with the appropriate plant species will be crucial in forming a functional wildlife corridor between the two fragments. The success of such a mitigation technique can only be shown with the careful planning of monitoring programs (using camera traps and passive ultrasonic recordings) and genetic studies of target animal groups.”
Photographs such as these serve as a reminder not only of the power of images to convey complex concepts in a visually accessible way, they also offer a small window into the natural world, the lives of ecologists, and the challenges that lay ahead for both.
All images published in this Editorial are released under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY)  to ensure credit with proper attribution. If you wish to re-distribute or re-use any images published in this Editorial, please credit individual winners as the image licensee.
We were genuinely overwhelmed with the variety and quality of submissions to this year’s competition, and we are immensely grateful to everyone that chose to get involved and share their wonderful work with us. A huge amount of support has been provided to ensure that the competition remained a success in its second year, and SH would like to personally thank everyone at BioMed Central who has continued to support and promote it in 2014—most especially Samantha Kaye, Laura Wills, Genevieve Horne, Elizabeth Moylan, Deborah Kahn, Ruth Francis, Anna Perman, James Balm, Kam Marwaha and Ruth Baker. The competition would also not have been nearly as much fun without the shared enthusiasm of Alice Murray and Pippa Harris.
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