15 incredible wildlife photos that show nature’s quiet, striking, and brutal moments

A coalition of cheetahs crossing Kenya’s dangerously raging Talek River. Bioluminescent mushrooms glowing bright green in far north Queensland, Australia. A deadly kitchen battle in Quito, Ecuador, between a tarantula and a tarantula hawk wasp.

Having been run for 57 years by the Natural History Museum in London, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition showcases exceptional nature photography from around the globe — and despite the obvious technical prowess of the photographers, it can be a challenging, unsettling, and often disturbing collection of images to look at, to be honest. Yet, as is typically the case in the natural world, they never fail to be hauntingly beautiful.

This year’s competition saw over 50,000 entries across 95 countries. The overall winner will be announced on Oct. 12, and the annual exhibition of the photographs opens on Oct. 15 at the Natural History Museum itself. Here are 15 of the highly commended winners in categories such as animal portraits, behaviour, and underwater, to name a few, as well as images from younger photographers in their teens and under 10.

Fair warning, some of the images are not easy to view, containing some brutal moments.

"Storm fox" by Jonny Armstrong, U.S. Highly commended, Animal Portraits.

“Storm fox” by Jonny Armstrong, U.S. Highly commended, Animal Portraits.
Credit: Jonny Armstrong

“The fox was busy searching in the shallows for salmon carcasses — sockeye salmon that had died after spawning. At the water’s edge, Jonny was lying on his chest, aiming for a low, wide angle. The vixen was one of only two red foxes resident on the tiny island in Karluk Lake, on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, and she was surprisingly bold,” reads the competition statement.

“Taking advantage of the window of deepening atmospheric light created by a storm rolling in, he was after a dramatic portrait. But working with a manual flash, he had to preset the power for a soft spotlight — just enough to bring out the texture of her coat at relatively close range. Now he was hoping she would come closer. As she did, his companion and fellow researcher raised up the diffused flash for him. It was just enough to pique her curiosity, giving Jonny his atmospheric portrait — studio-style — moments before the deluge of rain.”

"The great swim" by Buddhilini de Soyza, Sri Lanka/Australia. Highly commended, Behaviour (Mammals).

“The great swim” by Buddhilini de Soyza, Sri Lanka/Australia. Highly commended, Behaviour (Mammals).
Credit: Buddhilini de Soyza

“When the Tano Bora coalition of male cheetahs leapt into the raging Talek River in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Dilini feared they would not make it. Unseasonable, relentless rain (possibly linked to the changing climate) had, by January 2020, caused the worst flooding local elders had ever known. Cheetahs are strong (if not keen) swimmers, and with the prospect of more prey on the other side of the river, they were determined. Dilini followed them for hours from the opposite bank as they searched for a crossing point,” reads the statement.

“‘A couple of times the lead cheetah waded into the river, only to turn back,’ says Dilini. Calmer stretches — perhaps with a greater risk of lurking crocodiles — were spurned. ‘Suddenly, the leader jumped in,’ she says. Three followed, and then finally the fifth. Dilini watched them being swept away by the torrents, faces grimacing. Against her expectations and much to her relief, all five made it.”

"Net loss" by Audun Rikardsen, Norway. Highly commended, Oceans - The Bigger Picture.

“Net loss” by Audun Rikardsen, Norway. Highly commended, Oceans – The Bigger Picture.
Credit: Audun Rikardsen

“In the wake of a fishing boat, a slick of dead and dying herrings covers the surface of the sea off the coast of Norway. The boat had caught too many fish, and when the encircling wall of the purse-seine net was closed and winched up, it broke, releasing tons of crushed and suffocated animals. Audun was on board a Norwegian coastguard vessel, on a project to satellite‑tag killer whales,” reads the statement.

“For the Norwegian coastguard — responsible for surveillance of the fishing fleet — the spectacle of carnage and waste was effectively a crime scene. So Audun’s photographs became the visual evidence in a court case that resulted in a conviction and fine for the owner of the boat.”

"Mushroom magic" by Juergen Freund, Germany/Australia. Highly commended, Plants and Fungi.

“Mushroom magic” by Juergen Freund, Germany/Australia. Highly commended, Plants and Fungi.
Credit: Juergen Freund

“It was on a summer night, at full moon, after monsoon rain, that Juergen found the ghost fungus, on a dead tree in the rainforest near his home in Queensland, Australia. He needed a torch to keep to the track, but every few metres he would switch it off to scan the dark for the ghostly glow. His reward was this cluster of hand-sized fruiting bodies,” reads the statement.

“Comparatively few species of fungi are known to make light in this way, through a chemical reaction: luciferin oxidizing in contact with the enzyme luciferase. But why the ghost fungus glows is a mystery. No spore‑dispersing insects seem to be attracted by the light, which is produced constantly and may just be a by-product of the fungi’s metabolism. Juergen crouched on the forest floor for at least 90 minutes to take eight five minute exposures — to capture the dim glow — at different focal points, which were merged (focus stacked), to create one sharp-focus image.”

"Natural magnetism" by Jaime Culebras, Spain. Highly commended, Urban Wildlife.

“Natural magnetism” by Jaime Culebras, Spain. Highly commended, Urban Wildlife.

“When Jaime spotted this tarantula hawk wasp dragging a tarantula across his kitchen floor, in Quito, Ecuador, he rushed to get his camera. By the time he got back, the giant wasp – nearly four centimetres long — was hoisting its victim up the side of the fridge,” reads the statement.

“Tarantula hawks are said to have among the most painful stings on the planet, deadly when used on a spider. They actually feed on nectar and pollen, but the females also hunt tarantulas as food for their carnivorous larvae…Jaime waited for the colourful wasp to level with his fridge magnets, then framed his shot to include this passing addition to his collection.”

"Deep feelers" by Laurent Ballesta, France. Highly commended, Underwater.

“Deep feelers” by Laurent Ballesta, France. Highly commended, Underwater.
Credit: Laurent Ballesta

“In deep water off the French Mediterranean coast, among cold-water black coral, Laurent came across a surreal sight — a vibrant community of thousands of narwhal shrimps. Their legs weren’t touching, but their exceptionally long, highly mobile outer antennae were. It appeared that each shrimp was in touch with its neighbours and that, potentially, signals were being sent across a far‑reaching network,” reads the statement.

“Research suggests that such contact is central to the shrimps’ social behaviour, in pairing and competition. In such deep water (78 metres down — 256 feet), Laurent’s air supply included helium (to cut back on nitrogen absorbed), which enabled him to stay at depth longer, stalk the shrimps and compose an image at close quarters.”

"Toxic design" by Gheorghe Popa, Romania. Highly commended, Natural Artistry.

“Toxic design” by Gheorghe Popa, Romania. Highly commended, Natural Artistry.
Credit: Gheorghe Popa

“This eye-catching detail of a small river in the Geamana Valley, within Romania’s Apuseni Mountains, took Gheorghe by surprise. Though he had been visiting the region for several years, using his drone to capture images of the valley’s ever‑changing patterns, he had never come across such a striking combination of colours and shapes. But these designs — perhaps made sharp by recent heavy rain — are the result of an ugly truth,” reads the statement.

“In the late 1970s, more than 400 families living in Geamana were forced to leave to make way for waste flowing from the nearby Rosia Poieni mine — a mine exploiting one of the largest deposits of copper ore and gold in Europe. The picturesque valley became a ‘tailings pond’ filled with an acidic cocktail, containing pyrite (fool’s gold), iron and other heavy metals, laced with cyanide. These toxic materials have infiltrated the groundwater and threatened waterways more widely. The settlement was gradually engulfed with millions of tons of toxic waste.”

"Lynx on the threshold" by Sergio Marijuán, Spain. Highly commended, Urban Wildlife.

“Lynx on the threshold” by Sergio Marijuán, Spain. Highly commended, Urban Wildlife.
Credit: Sergio Marijuán

“A young Iberian lynx pauses in the doorway of the abandoned hayloft where it was raised, on a farm in eastern Sierra Morena, Spain. He will soon be leaving his mother’s territory. Once widespread on the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, by 2002 there were fewer than 100 lynx in Spain and none in Portugal. Their decline was driven by hunting, killing by farmers, habitat loss and loss of prey (they eat mainly rabbits),” reads the statement.

“Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts — reintroduction, rewilding, prey boosting and the creation of natural corridors and tunnels — Iberian lynx have escaped extinction and, though still endangered, are fully protected. Only recently, with numbers increasing, have they begun to take advantage of human environments. This individual is one of the latest in a family line to emerge from the old hayloft. After months of waiting, Sergio’s carefully-set camera trap finally gave him the picture he wanted.”

"A caring hand" by Douglas Gimesy, Australia. Highly commended, Photojournalism.

“A caring hand” by Douglas Gimesy, Australia. Highly commended, Photojournalism.
Credit: Douglas Gimesy

“After a feed of special formula milk, an orphaned grey-headed flying-fox pup lies on a ‘mumma roll’, sucking on a dummy and cradled in the hand of wildlife-carer Bev. She was three weeks old when she was found on the ground in Melbourne, Australia, and taken to a shelter,” reads the statement.

“Grey‑headed flying-foxes, endemic to eastern Australia, are threatened by heat-stress events and destruction of their forest habitat — where they play a key role in seed dispersal and pollination. They also come into conflict with people, get caught in netting and on barbed wire and electrocuted on power lines. At eight weeks, the pup will be weaned onto fruit, then flowering eucalyptus. After a few months, she will join a crèche and build up flight fitness, before being moved next to Melbourne’s Yarra Bend bat colony, for eventual release into it.”

"Up for grabs" by Jack Zhi, U.S. Highly commended, Behaviour: Birds

“Up for grabs” by Jack Zhi, U.S. Highly commended, Behaviour: Birds
Credit: Jack Zhi

“In southern California, USA, a juvenile white-tailed kite reaches to grab a live mouse from the clutches of its hovering father. A more experienced bird would have approached from behind (it’s easier to coordinate a mid-air transfer if you are both moving in the same direction), but this cinnamon streaked youngster had been flying for just two days and still had much to learn,” the statement reads.

“To get the shot, Jack had to abandon his tripod, grab his camera and run. The result was the highlight of three years’ work — the action and the conditions came together perfectly. Meanwhile, the fledgling missed but then circled around and seized the mouse.”

"Apollo landing" by Emelin Dupieux, France. Highly commended, 11-14 Years

“Apollo landing” by Emelin Dupieux, France. Highly commended, 11-14 Years
Credit: Emelin Dupieux

“As dusk starts to fall, an Apollo butterfly settles on an oxeye daisy. Emelin had long dreamed of photographing the Apollo, a large mountain butterfly with a wingspan up to 90 millimetres (31/2 inches) and now one of Europe’s threatened butterflies, at risk from the warming climate and extreme weather events,” reads the statement.

“In summer, on holiday in the Haut-Jura Regional Nature Park, on the French‑Swiss border, Emelin found himself surrounded by alpine meadows full of butterflies, including Apollos…After numerous adjustments of settings and focus, Emelin finally achieved his emblematic image.”

'Lockdown chicks' by Gagana Mendis Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka. Highly commended, 10 years and under.

‘Lockdown chicks’ by Gagana Mendis Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka. Highly commended, 10 years and under.
Credit: Gagana Mendis Wickramasinghe

“Three rose-ringed parakeet chicks pop their heads out of the nest hole as their father returns with food. Watching was 10‑year-old Gagana, on the balcony of his parents’ bedroom, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The hole was at eye level with the balcony, in a dead areca-nut palm in the backyard, which his parents had deliberately left standing to attract wildlife,” reads the competition statement.

“In the spring of 2020, during the long days of the island-wide lockdown, Gagana and his older brother had hours of entertainment watching the parakeet family and experimenting with their cameras, sharing lenses and a tripod, always mindful that the slightest movement or noise would stop the chicks showing themselves.”

'Raw moment' by Lara Jackson, UK. Highly commended, Animal Portraits.

‘Raw moment’ by Lara Jackson, UK. Highly commended, Animal Portraits.
Credit: Lara Jackson

“Bright red blood dripped from her muzzle — oxygenated blood, indicating that her wildebeest meal was still alive. Perhaps being inexperienced, this young lioness had not made a clean kill and had begun eating the still struggling animal. Now, with a paw holding it down, she gave Lara an intense stare. More than 2 million wildebeest move through the north of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park on their annual migration in search of greener grass, providing the Serengeti lions with a seasonal glut of food. Lara had spotted the lioness just as she pounced,” reads the statement.

“Lions’ primary hunting strategy is stalking, but this one had just been resting in the long grass, when the wildebeest wandered by. ‘She was already quite full,’ says Lara, ‘probably after feeding the night before, but she grabbed the opportunity for an easy meal.'”

"The nurturing wetland" by Rakesh Pulapa, India. Highly commended, Wetlands - The Bigger Picture.

“The nurturing wetland” by Rakesh Pulapa, India. Highly commended, Wetlands – The Bigger Picture.
Credit: Rakesh Pulapa

“Houses on the edge of Kakinada city reach the estuary, buffered from the sea by the remains of a mangrove swamp. Development has already destroyed 90 percent of mangroves — salt-tolerant trees and shrubs — along this eastern coastal area of Andhra Pradesh, India,” reads the statement.

“But mangroves are now recognized as vital for coastal life, human and non-human. Their roots trap organic matter, providing carbon storage, slow incoming tides, protect communities against storms and create nurseries for numerous fish and other species that fishing communities rely on. Flying his drone over the area, Rakesh could see the impact of human activities — pollution, plastic waste and mangrove clearance — but this picture seemed to sum up the protective, nurturing girdle that mangroves provide for such storm-prone tropical communities.”

"The gripping end" by Wei Fu, Thailand. Highly commended, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles.

“The gripping end” by Wei Fu, Thailand. Highly commended, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles.
Credit: Wei Fu

“Clutched in the coils of a golden tree snake, a red-spotted tokay gecko stays clamped onto its attacker’s head in a last attempt at defence. Named for their to‑kay call, tokay geckos are large — up to 40 centimetres (16 inches) long — feisty and have powerful jaws. But they are also a favourite prey of the golden tree snake,” reads the statement.

This snake, common in the lowland forests of South and Southeast Asia, also hunts lizards, amphibians, birds and even bats, and is one of five snakes that can ‘fly’, expanding its ribs and flattening its body to glide from branch to branch. Wei was photographing birds at a park near his home in Bangkok, Thailand, when his attention was caught by the loud croaking and hissing warnings of the gecko.”

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