Winning Photos Capture Awe-Inspiring Moments of Science

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
'Icy sugar cubes' . (Photo: Peter Convey/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

From olive oil raindrops to a contemplative polar bear, the winners in this year's Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition have one thing in common: they all celebrate science.

It's the third year for the contest which, organizers say, "celebrates the power of photography to communicate science and shows the beautiful images discovered whilst exploring our world."

The competition was launched in 2015 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the oldest continual scientific journal in the world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

This year's overall winner, above, was shot by Peter Convey, a polar ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey. Convey photographed an Antarctic ice sheet being stretched in two directions with a Twin Otter plane flying overhead for scale. The photo was taken in 1995 during a flight over the southern Antarctic Peninsula.

Chosen from more than 1,100 photos, it's also the judges' top selection in the Earth Science and Climatology category.

"It's been an incredible privilege to work in the Antarctic for nearly 30 years now; every time I go there it takes my breath away," Covey said. "As a terrestrial ecologist, originally specialising in insects, you wouldn't think the inland areas of the continent could hold much scientific promise, but you would be so wrong!"

'Bow first'. (Photo: Giuseppe Suaria/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

Giuseppe Suaria's photo captured the Russian research vessel Akademik Tryoshnikov as it leans against the Mertz Glacier in Eastern Antarctica. The image was taken moments before ROPOS, a Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV), was deployed under the glacier tongue. The ROV was sent to investigate the melting of the ice sheet after a large, protruding piece of protruding ice broke away from the main body in 2010.

The photo was named runner-up in the Earth Science and Climatology category.

'Olive oil drop family hanging together'. (Photo: Hervé Elettro/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

The winner in the Micro-imaging category, Hervé Elettro's photo features precariously hanging olive oil drops. He explains the science behind his inspiration.

"Inspired by the micro-glue droplets produced by the Nephila Madagascariensis spider to trap its prey, we began thinking to ourselves 'What if these droplets could do more than just gluing?' Surface tension, the ability of a fluid to oppose deformation, indeed allows droplets to swallow any fibre made slack under compression, thus tightening the web against natural elements. A first step in the understanding of this mechanism was to use a model system for capture silk: drops on a thin soft fibre. The hanging olive oil drop family was born."

We know that tiny tardigrades are very resilient, but who knew these water bears were also so photogenic, at least in an extremely close-up kind of way?

Vladimir Gross captured a 50-hour-old tardigrade embyro using a scanning electron microscope at a magnification of 1800x. His photo, which depicts the embryo at a mere 1/15 of a millimeter in length, was the runner-up in the Micro-imaging category.

'Waiting in the shallows'. (Photo: Nico de Bruyn/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

"On an island filled with life and with the opportunity for incredible wildlife sightings, you learn to keep your camera close at hand," says Nico de Bruyn, winner of the Ecology and Environmental Science category.

His photo features killer whales suddenly entering a small bay at Subantarctic Marion Island, surprising a small huddle of King Penguins busy preening themselves in the water. De Bruyn says he was busy taking a census of elephant seals further up on the beach when the sounds of sudden splashing by the penguins alerted him to the whales' presence.

'Invincible ants'. (Photo: Thomas Endlein /Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

Normally pitcher plants would be quite happy when insects come parading their way, but the ants marching here are immune to the the slippery rim and structures that trap their lesser kind.

Here Thomas Endlein captured these "invincible ants" as they climb the curled tendrils of the carnivorous pitcher plant, occasionally even darting in unharmed to steal a bit of tasty nectar.

The image was runner up in the Ecology and Environmental Science category.

'Respiro'. (Photo: Antonia Doncila/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

The winner in the Behavior category, Antonia Doncila's photo was taken while crossing the Fram Strait near the eastern Greenland coast.

"Since the Arctic Ocean is warming at double the rate compared with the rest of the globe, it was painful yet unsurprising for us to see that at 80°N sea-ice was sparse. On our journey, we saw polar bears swimming in an ocean of open water with no shadow of sea-ice for them to rest their heavy bodies on. Those polar bears were doomed to die from overheating while swimming hopeless in any direction," Doncila writes.

But her subject, she says, is lucky.

"He found a portion of fast ice which rapidly became his home. His gaze into the water represents the product of our societal wrongdoings. It is also a symbol of hope because what has melted can become frozen again."

Arctic terns mate for life, and they have a preference for making their homes on the ground, says photographer David Costantini. While on a research trip to Svalbard, between Norway and the North Pole, he discovered these resourceful birds.

"I came across this couple of Arctic terns that found a clever solution to solve the difficult task of finding a good place to breed in human-modified landscapes: they made their own house on an abandoned shovel," he says. "This photo also shows how vocal communication between mates is very important in terns to coordinate parental efforts in order to achieve a successful reproduction."

His photo was the runner-up in the Behavior category.

'Lunar spotlight, South Pole, Antarctica'. (Photo: Daniel Michalik/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

Daniel Michalik, who is wintering at the South Pole working for the South Pole Telescope research collaborative, took this photo, which won the Astronomy category.

"Ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere create a rare optical phenomenon: a light pillar underneath the Moon. The cold dry atmosphere at the Geographic South Pole favors this and similar phenomena (sun/moon dogs, halos, arcs); they are much more often seen here than in the non-polar regions," Michalik says. "The light pillar creates a dramatic spotlight on the out-of-this-world appearance of the frozen Antarctic plateau."

'Diamond ring through thin clouds'. (Photo: Wei-Feng Xue /Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

The runner-up in the Astronomy category, Wei-Feng Xue's photo is of the American Eclipse of 2017, as seen from the path of totality that went through northern Georgia.

"This is the diamond ring lighting up some very thin cloud structures, looking almost like space clouds (i.e. a nebula). Also in the photo, the solar corona was dimmed a little by the thin clouds but was still visible, and some Baily's beads and solar prominences that can be seen around the diamond."

'Acari trapped in spiderweb'. (Photo: Bernardo Segura/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

It's hard to miss the massive webs built by the spiders of the genus Austochilus in the Chilean temperate forests, says Bernardo Segura, who adds that it's also impossible not to be amazed by the "gigantic horizontal sheet of spiders up to a meter long."

After taking several photos near Nahuelbuta National Park, he realized that some of the threads had lovely blue tones.

"I also realized that those threads are probably specialized in prey capture, and the spring-like structure that can be seen inside the threads probably has something to do with the elasticity. While taking photos of this amazing structure I saw a small acari hanging from the web, which may have fallen into the web and the spider didn't notice."

Segura's haunting photo won an honorable mention in the Micro-imaging category.

'The rainy season, the green tree frog, and the maintenance of life'. (Photo: Carlos Jared/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

For eight months of the year, the small green tree frog Phyllomedusa nordestina remains hidden in its home in the Brazilian semi-arid desert. But after the first summer rains, when the dry, brown landscape begins to turn a verdant green, the tree frog awakes with the surrounding landscape.

"The apparent fragile tree frogs follow this same tendency and change their usual brownish color to the fresh summer green. With this new garment, they mate within the flowers and leaves that also color the scenario, often (as in this case), with natural pomp," writes Carlos Jared, who won an honorable mention in the Ecology and Environmental Science category for his colorful image.

"Reproduction usually occurs in puddles or on the shores of small temporary swamps. Everything must be very fast because drought will ruthlessly return."

'Pele's fire'. (Photo: Sabrina Koehler/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

Sabrina Koehler says she didn't even need to fully extend her telephoto lens to capture the image in this photo, which earned an honorable mention in the Earth Science and Climatology category.

"I had the unique opportunity this year to capture nature's creation, the 61G lava flow at the current Pu'u O'o eruption site of the active Kilauea volcano in Hawaii's Volcano National Park," she says. "Hawai'i, or the Big Island, is the last of a series of islands created by this volcano, and still growing landmass every year. I went there by boat since it's the way to go if you want to get very close. It was stunning."

'Toss the scorpion - Indian roller playing with the kill'. (Photo: Susmita Datta/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

During an early morning safari drive at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in India, everyone else was looking for big cats, but Susmita Datta saw something else.

"When everyone was busy tracking the tiger movement, this little moment happened on a tree branch, giving me the chance to shoot the sequence. Though light was poor (that was dealt with, in the processing part), it was still great to witness the natural history moment of survival between the prey and its predator. This Indian roller is establishing its superiority and showing off the kill (a scorpion) before finishing it off by thrashing it against the tree branches."

The photo earned an honorable mention in the Behavior category.

'Within Reach'. (Photo: Petr Horálek/Royal Society Publishing Photo Competition)

Petr Horálek captured this ethereal portrait of a person reaching for the stars and "Within Reach" won an honorable mention for Astronomy.

"The rocky, barren landscape below evokes an alien world, complementing the cosmic display above. The main feature: our beautiful home galaxy, the Milky Way, arching across the Chilean night sky and framing the observer on the left. The light from billions of stars combine to create the Milky Way's glow, with huge clouds of dark dust blocking the light and creating the observed mottled pattern. A natural effect, airglow, is responsible for the swathes of green and orange light that appear to be emanating from the horizon."