Life Captured at its Best

(September 16th, 2014) “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”, Charles Darwin once wrote. And as a proof of Nature’s beauty, BMC Ecology runs an annual image contest. Here are this year’s winners.

Life can be harsh and ugly but it can also be amazing and beautiful. The second BMC Ecology Image Competition impressively showcases the latter, with photos capturing unique moments in the life of various animals.

After screening more than 300 photos, the judges recently announced their top choices, which reflect life on earth from pretty much any imaginable aspect. “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,” explains the judges' panel – among them Michel Baguette from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, and Michael Bonsall from the University of Oxford.

A total of 94 researchers from all around the world submitted their best work. Their predetermined goal was simple: to provide a well-deserved look at ecological research, and, as the editors describe, “to capture a grand perspective of life on earth, its interconnectedness, and its wonder”.

And the winner is… a humble little mouse, in the middle of a rather unusual act (for a mouse): pollination. The author of the winning picture, Petra Wester, from Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, explains, “Pollination of flowers by mice is a rare phenomenon and not well known. Most people know that bees, and maybe other insects or birds act as pollinators, but have never heard about mice.”

Wester's image depicts the Namaqua rock mouse (Aethomys namaquensis), caught in the act of pollinating the pagoda lily (Whiteheadia bifolia) in South Africa. Why is this worthy of a prize? Well, for one, this picture represents the first tangible evidence of nocturnal rodent pollination under natural conditions. Another aspect that made this photo a winner was the thought-provoking nature of the image, as succinctly explained by the judges. “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. 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.”

Not only the big winner is worth an admiring look. There are a lot more stunning pictures like the runner-up image, showing a black-browed albatross (Thelassarche melanophrys) feeding its chick (left). The image, taken by Letizia Campioni from the Eco-Ethology Research Unit, ISPA in Portugal, points to one of the many behaviours animals have evolved to care for their offspring. These long-lived birds, rather than producing lots of offspring, have a more conservative approach, as explained by the judges, “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.”

Other interesting images show an ant in the midst of an attack by a parasitoid fly in Chile, or the unusual image of a crab spider feeding on an euglossine bee while a long-tailed skipper butterfly looks for nectar, all occurring on the same flower. The photo, taken at Cerro Chucanti, Panama, shows an amalgam of community-level interactions. “Note the bee had already filled his ‘saddle bags’ with pollen before being attacked by the spider. The petals on the far side of the flower also appear to be succumbing to some kind of blight, perhaps due to a fungus. Thus, this photo shows multiple ecological processes taking place simultaneously on one small, beautiful flower,” explains the image’s photographer, Andrew J. Crawford, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

Don’t miss any of the award-winning pictures, which include a wide range of topics, from the breathtaking diversity of coral reefs in Tubbataha Natural Park in the Phillipines, to the dry habitat of the Death Valley, in California, USA, or the collage of results from multiple computer simulations on evolutionary research showing a mixture of art and science in the resulting image. These and many more images are all free for you to enjoy and learn about the wonderful world we live in.

Karl Gruber

Photos: Petra Wester, Letizia Campioni

Last Changes: 10.24.2014