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BMC Ecology Image Competition 2016: the winning images
BMC Ecologyvolume 16, Article number: 34 (2016)
The 2016 BMC Ecology Image Competition marked another celebration of the astounding biodiversity, natural beauty, and biological interactions documented by talented ecologists worldwide. For our fourth annual competition, we welcomed guest judge Dr. Matthew Palmer of Columbia University, who chose the winning image from over 140 entries. In this editorial, we highlight the award winning images along with a selection of highly commended honorable mentions.
The 2016 competition yielded an impressive collection of entries spanning many facets of the natural world, from sprawling vistas and cloudscapes to the fine-tuned interactions of predators, prey, parasites and pollinators. While ecological activity constantly surrounds us, these powerful examples were brought into focus by the expert observational and photographic skills of our contestants. As in previous competitions [1–3], we were thrilled to once again receive such an impressive and varied collection of images this year, and we commend everyone who entered for their excellent work that continues to make this competition a success.
This year’s overall winner deftly encompassed a wide range of ecological interaction within one finely composed photograph. Congratulations to Davide Gaglio of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, whose snapshot of the Kalahari Desert (Fig. 1) stood out above all the rest.
Guest judge Matthew Palmer provides a breakdown of the rich and surprising details in Davide’s photo: “This image is strikingly beautiful—particularly the colors and the composition—but it also tells several stories. The most obvious story is the antelope browsing on the tree branches—probably springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), though the photographer does not specify. This park is on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, an arid landscape with sparse vegetation. Tree leaves in arid landscapes generally have the greatest water content just before dawn, a fact that is surely not lost on the antelope. A deeper story here is about the park itself. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park spans the border of South Africa and Botswana and is an example of cooperation and shared management between countries—a peace park. However, large areas of this park were leased for the extraction of natural gas in 2014, which may have negative effects on the park’s wildlife.”
Coincidentally, the first runner-up image also features antelope. However unlike the silhouette seen in Davide’s landscape image, the young Saiga antelope are the central subject of the portrait captured by Andrey Giljov of St. Petersburg State University in Russia (Fig. 2). This striking presentation provides an intimate view of the critically endangered species, allowing us to appreciate their unique beauty as well as the importance of conservation efforts.
Matthew Palmer describes the significance of this rare sighting: “This image highlights two newly-born Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) on the Caspian steppe. The photograph has several wonderful aesthetic elements—the comical expressions on the faces of the antelope (largely helped by the enlarged proboscis—big noses are funny across cultures and species!), the sociality of the animals, and the framing of bare earth, grass, and sky. But the underlying conservation story is also poignant. Saiga antelope populations have been decimated by hunting for their meat and horns—valued in Chinese medicine—dropping from a population of over one million in 1970s to approximately 50,000 today. Conservation efforts have stopped much of the hunting, but illegal poaching and highly-skewed sex ratios driven by culling the males for horns continue to threaten the species. The birthing season is a hopeful time for any conservation program, and it’s easy to project hope onto the animals seen here.”
While we may often think of ecology and nature as being separate from human spaces, the image from second runner-up Raf Aerts (University of Leuven, Belgium) reminds us that sometimes the two can converge. In the photo he titled “Troglodytes bicycletes,” a Eurasian wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) has adopted a bike seat to build its nest (Fig. 3). This provides an example of urban ecology—a research area which our guest judge is dedicated to—and urges the viewer to reflect on the relationship and impact of human activity on the natural world.
Behavioral and physiological ecology
The “Behavioral and Physiological Ecology” section received the highest number of submissions this year. The entries featured animal and plant species from all over the world and included a wide array of insects, birds, as well as large mammals like zebra and rhinoceros; we even saw a few representations of marine animals.
Section Editors Dominique Mazzi and David Hughes were both taken with the image by Marco Zenatello (Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research), of a Great-tailed grackle he spotted on a city street (Fig. 4). As Dr. Mazzi points out, both the colors and the setting caught their interest: “We selected the image from an excellent group of contenders showing the breadth and diversity of animal behavior. The displaying Great-tailed grackle captures many interesting aspects of behavior: a young male displaying in a cityscape, enthralled with himself and unaware of what is going on around him. The symmetry and balance of a few colors and clear lines, and the lack of distracting details make this visually stunning image grab the viewer’s attention.”
Conservation ecology and biodiversity research
Co-section editors Luke Jacobus and Josef Settele chose a Conservation Ecology and Biodiversity Research winner that truly symbolizes the goals of the section. The snapshot by Elin Videvall (Lund University, Sweden) of the long-tongued bumble bee in pollinating action brings to mind progress in conservation efforts for declining biodiversity in bumble bee populations (Fig. 5). As key pollinators for many plant species, the conservation status of bees is critical not only for their species, but also for the plant species that rely on their pollinating activity.
Section Editor Josef Settele thought Elin’s photo was a great visual reminder of the continued efforts for bee conservation: “The bumble bee picture was selected as it nicely represents the context of the very first assessment which was done within IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) [ 4 ], which dealt with pollination. This assessment was a major achievement on our road to bring biodiversity issue[s] much higher on the political agenda and rais[e] awareness at the UN level. More details of the report can be found here: http://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/downloads/Pollination_Summary%20for%20policymakers_EN_.pdf .”
Landscape ecology and ecosystems
Our pick for the winner of the “Landscape Ecology and Ecosystems” section exploited drone technology to generate this striking aerial view of surales structures in South America (Fig. 6). Not only are these geometric land structures visually interesting, they arise through a fascinating ecological process—the foraging activity of earthworms.
Delphine Renard, of the University of California Santa Barbara, who submitted the photo, describes her research group’s discovery of the unusual origins of these surales: “This high-resolution aerial photograph was taken in Colombia using a remote-controlled drone (picture credit: Delphine Renard, PIXY™ drone). It shows hundreds of densely-packed, regularly spaced earth mounds. The round mounds in this photograph are about 1.5–2 meters in diameter and 0.50 meters in height. Although descriptions of these mounds, called “surales”, date back to the 1940s, their ecology was virtually unknown. Using my own aerial photographs—including the one here—and satellite imagery from Google Earth, I surveyed surales landscapes across the savanna grasslands of the Orinoco Llanos in Colombia and Venezuela. Surales are much more common that we at first thought. Indeed, they are present in an area covering about 75,000 km 2 , e.g. larger than the area of the Republic of Ireland. Combining data on soil physical and chemical properties, soil macrofauna and vegetation, we showed the key role played by a still-undescribed species of earthworm (Andiorrhinus sp.) in the formation of surales. This picture reveals how stunning the patterns created by accumulated earthworm poop can be, seen from the air. The story of surales was recently published .”
Matthew Palmer noticed the methodological significance of this image, and reminds us that along with the “beautiful landscape pattern, [it] shows the benefits of drone technology for ecology, in this case leading to a potential explanation for a formerly mysterious pattern.”
Community, population, and macroecology
The winner of the “Community, Population and Macroecology” section brought us a glimpse into an animal community that we land-dwellers don’t usually see. Julia Spät (University of Cambridge, UK) presents this dramatic black and white image of a school of dolphins that she captured while snorkeling (Fig. 7).
Section Editor Simon Blanchet recognizes this as one of the perks of life as an ecologist: “it shows the chance we have to do that job and the proximity we can have sometimes [to] the wildlife. This is in my opinion a motivating image for young scientists and for more experienced scientists, since sometimes it is important to come back to the roots and remind ourselves why we are doing this amazing job.”
Nature produces fascinating patterns—like the precise geometry of the great spotted woodpecker’s feathers. The sharp pattern of the bird alone was enough for the image by César Garcia (University of Lisbon, Portugal) to catch our attention (Fig. 8); however, as is often the case in ecology, this prominent feature is hardly the full story. The star subject is actually the tree trunk, which is supporting concurrent ecological interactions—with the visiting bird, as well as with the resident moss. Furthermore, this image hints at an unseen community: the woodpecker will presumably use the tree for its signature “peck,” to announce its presence to other woodpeckers in the area.
Many images were immediately arresting because of their incredible and often unexpected color schemes. The range of colors found in nature are illustrated at the ecosystem level, shown the underwater seascape by Benjamin Geffroy (Additional file 1), and at the organismal level of two different colorful lorikeet species by Abd Al-Bar Al-Farha (Additional file 2).
In another image (Additional file 3), the vibrant blue of the iceberg enforces its presence in the background of a Chinstrap penguin, reminding us of the perseverance required for these animals to thrive in harsh conditions. With similar color palettes but different climates, a killer whale emerges from bright blue Australian waters (Additional file 4), and silhouettes of shearwaters above the sea break through a glowing Mediterranean horizon (Additional file 5).
In some cases, colors may initially catch a viewer’s attention, but on further inspection are secondary to the bigger story behind the image. The gradient hues in the frailejón succulent drew in guest judge Matthew Palmer, but he also noted the structural features that represent its need to survive adverse conditions in its changing environment (Additional file 6).
The significant variation in maize lends itself to creativity: Somnath Roy and colleagues produced a beautiful landscape using colorful diverse maize landraces (Additional file 7)—demonstrating a whimsical and unusual application of ecological research.
Ecology and technology
A theme of this year’s competition was the interaction of nature with human activity and manmade technology, which produced some unique images.
Some very enjoyable moments were captured when the animal subjects seem to acknowledge or even pose for the camera—such as the enthusiastic proboscis monkey seen by David Constantini (Additional file 8), or the herd of waterbuck that give a skeptical gaze at the motion-capturing camera set up in the Gorongosa National Park (Additional file 9). Matthew Palmer described this scene as “a wonderful serendipitous moment—captured without an actual photographer but with lovely composition. This image also illustrates both citizen science and the recovery of wildlife following armed conflict.”
Similarly, Lawrence Reeves used an ultraviolet light to attract a swarm of moths, creating a remarkably composed image that not only recreates the behavior of moths in nature but also demonstrates a practical tool used by field researchers, to keep the moths away from their equipment (Additional file 10). In another unusual application of technology in ecological research, Jean-Luc Jung and colleagues visualized the “acoustic fat” of a porpoise head using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which generated an eerie image resembling a human face (Additional file 11).
While the wren in Fig. 3 is an example of nature “reclaiming” human-made spaces, in some cases human spaces are intentionally built around nature—such as the bridge dwarfed by its surrounding bamboo plants at the National Coffee Park in the rural area of Montenegro, Quindío, Colombia, in the submission from Arnubio Valencia Jimenez (Additional file 12).
Finally, another recurring theme in this year’s winning images was the notable human efforts toward ecological conservation. In Bethany Clark’s image (Additional file 13), a tracking tag on a gannet’s leg aids studies of the behavior and travel patterns of individuals and populations, in order to better evaluate management options.
Many of the submissions portrayed specialized relationships between species that have likely evolved and developed over long periods of time. One of this year’s outstanding examples is Ethan Newman’s shot of the proboscid fly approaching the Nerine humilis plant—the unique anatomy of both the fly and the flower have adapted to optimize pollination efforts (Additional file 14).
A more subtle relationship exists in the fungal attachment to the Scilla bifolia flower, giving a dusty charcoal coating to the otherwise lavender petals of infected flowers. This relationship is intriguing as it not only alters the aesthetic appearance of the petals, but also affects the biology, leading to sterilization of the host [6–8] (Additional file 15). Another surprising parasitic relationship is seen in the lurking eyes of parasitic Heteropelma amictum wasp pupa inside the host cuticle of a Callimorpha dominula caterpillar pupa (Additional file 16).
Section Editor David Hughes, an ant expert, admired a photo capturing myrmecophily—or mutual association with ants—by Arpan Kumar Parui (Additional file 17). In this photo, weaver ants interact with homoptera nymphs on a plant.
The characteristic sandy imprint on the Indo-Pacific coast photographed by Ulisse Cardini (Additional file 18) is the result of foraging and burrowing behavior by sand bubbler crabs—illustrating interplay between predator, prey, and environment in a single ecosystem.
We were amazed once again by the variation and talent in the submissions to the 2016 Image competition, and are thrilled to use this event to celebrate ecology and the research activities of ecologists worldwide. We hope that our readers enjoy this collection of images, and that they serve as inspiration for closer observation and reflection of the animals, plants, and geological phenomena with which we share our natural surroundings.
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Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
JRS organized the competition and wrote the editorial. JS, LMJ, SB, DM, DPH, and MP selected the winners. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
We would like to thank all of the participants for their excellent submissions and thoughtful commentary. We would also like to acknowledge Simon Harold, who originally created the competition, as well as Christopher Morrey, Elaine Zhang, Megan Haran, and Catherine Potenski for their helpful advice; Tanya Ashfaq, Samantha Kaye and the BioMed Central marketing department; Alanna Orpen, Anne Korn, Sophie Marchant and the BioMed Central Communications team.
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.
JRS is an employee of BioMed Central. DPH, JS, DM, LMJ, and SB are Editorial Board Members for BMC Ecology. MP declares no competing interests.