A Different Way to Look at Tadpoles, Ferns and Sharks

(December 18th, 2015) For the very first time, the UK’s Royal Society launched a photo competition. The winning images are both aesthetic and educational, showing well-known creatures from new perspectives.

The Royal Society is always looking for ways to promote science to a more general audience. As such, last July, they teamed up with publications Biology Letters and Proceedings B to launch the first ever Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition. The idea behind the event was deceivingly simple: find an image that can grab the public’s attention, but at the same time, also carries and important scientific meaning.

Until the closing date in September, the Royal Society received more than 100 entries spread over three categories: ‘Behaviour’, ‘Ecology and Environmental Science’ and ‘Evolutionary Biology’. From all these photos, the aim was to choose a winner for each category and then an overall winner to receive a £500 prize.

Tasked with choosing the best snaps, the judging panel included Innes Cuthill, based at the University of Bristol; Claire Spottiswoode, from Cambridge University and Alex Badyaev, from the University of Arizona. The main judging criteria for the competition was, according to Cuthill, “first, an aesthetic and emotional reaction to the image — composition, message, originality — and then how well it evoked the theme of the individual category”.

All the judges agreed it wasn’t easy to pick the winners. The team tried to select a few photos in each category, but they ended up with a strong overlap in their shortlists. “It was a tough call in all of the categories”, says Cuthill, but “after extensive discussion, we were all in complete agreement over the final choices in each category, and the overall winner”.

So, after much deliberation and several conference calls between the judges, the overall winner was a photo taken by Bert Willaert, a herpetologist based in Bruges, Belgium. The photo entitled “Tadpoles overhead” shows a familiar animal from a rather unfamiliar perspective. “We are used to looking down at tadpoles from above, or in a jar, but the tadpole’s eye view (or perhaps that of a predator fish?) immediately illustrates the relationship between the animal and its habitat”, says Cuthill.

Despite the attention-grabbing tadpoles, the winners of the other two categories also deserve high praise. "Fern wearing a drysuit" by photographer Ulrike Bauer, winner of the Evolutionary Biology category, shows the incredible water repellent characteristics of the fern Salvinia molesta. “The aesthetics appeal immediately”, says Cuthill, “but the biologist can also admire the adaptations for water-repellency in the intricate structures of the hairs on the fern’s surface”.

Finally, for the Behaviour category, it was a case of going with the flow to avoid a predator. This incredible shot (by Claudia Pogoreutz, PhD student at the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology in Bremen, Germany) shows how a school of tropical clupeid fish cleverly avoids a black tip reef shark. “The coordinated motion of the fleeing fish and the dynamic response of the shark are both beautifully evoked in this wonderful composition - beauty and a tingle of fear in a single image”, explains Cuthill.

Overall, Cuthill believes the quality of the photos received was exceptional. “This Royal Society [Competition] was special for me”, concluded the researcher. “I am both an animal behaviourist and editor of Proceedings of the Royal Society, and know that photographs can be so effective at communicating both science and a love of nature”.

This competition was part of Royal Society’s celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of Philosophical Transactions, the world’s first and longest running science journal, launched in 1665.

Alex Reis

Photo: B. Willaert

Last Changes: 01.26.2016