For more than half a century, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has captivated audiences. Organized by London's Natural History Museum and judged by an international panel of industry professionals, the contest recognizes photographers who create images that achieve a balance between creativity, artistry and technical prowess.
This year, a staggering 42,000 entries were submitted by professional and amateur photographers alike, but it was this haunting scene, titled "A tale of two foxes," that solidified Canadian photographer Don Gutoski as this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
The image, which was captured in Wapusk National Park along Hudson Bay, Canada, depicts the harsh reality and struggles that come with living in a subarctic tundra currently threatened by our planet's changing climate. It's rare for red foxes to actively hunt arctic foxes, but there is sometimes conflict when their historical ranges overlap.
"What might simply be a straightforward interaction between predator and prey struck the jury as a stark example of climate change, with red foxes encroaching on Arctic fox territory," writes jury member Kathy Moran, who is also a senior editor for National Geographic magazine. "The bottom line is, this image works on multiple levels. It is graphic, it captures behavior and it is one of the strongest single storytelling photographs I have seen."
Gutoski is joined at the top spot with 14-year-old Ondrej Pelánek, who was awarded the title of Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image "Ruffs on display." The thrilling shot shows the moment a group of territorial male ruffs lash out at each other over ownership of their "lek" courtship grounds on Varanger's tundra in Norway.
"There are lots of good photographs of ruffs on the lek, getting ready to display, but very few images that capture the behavior with such intensity and grace," Moran explains. "The photographer has captured a moment that speaks to powerful behavior, yet renders it as a delicate dance. You could spend a career trying to make this photograph. That it came from one of the younger entrants was just a thrill."
All of the winning images will be showcased in an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum before embarking on a world tour meant to "inspire millions of people across the world to appreciate and conserve the natural world."
Continue below for a look at a few of the other winners, with captions provided by the photographers and the competition organizers:
A whale of a mouthful
"A Bryde's whale rips through a swirling ball of sardines, gulping a huge mouthful in a single pass. As it expels hundreds of liters of seawater from its mouth, the fish are retained by plates of baleen hanging down from its palate; they are then pushed into its stomach to be digested alive. This sardine baitball was itself a huge section of a much larger shoal below that common dolphins had corralled by blowing a bubble-net around the fish and forcing them up against the surface. Other predators had joined the feeding frenzy, attacking from all sides. These included copper, dusky and bull sharks and hundreds of Cape gannets, which were diving into the baitball from above. The Bryde's whale was one of five that were lunging in turn into the center of the baitball.
"Michael was diving offshore of South Africa’s Transkei (Eastern Cape), specifically to photograph the spectacle of the 'sardine run' – the annual winter migration of billions of sardines along the southeastern coast of southern Africa. Photographically, the greatest difficulty was coping with the dramatic changes in light caused by the movements of the fish and the mass of attacking predators, while also staying out of the way of the large sharks and the 16‑meter (53‑foot), 50-ton Bryde's whales, which would lunge out of the darkness and, as he knew from experience, were capable of knocking him clean out of the water."
"Locked into obedience by their trainers' gaze, big cats perform at the Seven Star Park in Guilin, China. They have had their teeth and claws pulled out, and when not in the arena, they live in the tiny cages visible behind the stage. At least one (center) is a captive-bred hybrid – part lion, part tiger. In 2010, the Chinese authorities issued a directive to zoos and animal parks to stop performances that involve wild animals. But this is not legally binding, and in many facilities across the country, it is still business as usual, with shows attracting audiences unaware of the scale of the abuse, neglect and cruelty involved.
"For the past 20 years, Britta has traveled extensively, documenting the world of animals in captivity and their unnecessary suffering in the name of education and entertainment. But never, she says, has she come across 'such brutal and systematic deprivation' as in China. 'The potential for change is huge,' she maintains. 'Despite government control of the internet, social-media messages do get through and can make a difference. Attitudes are changing.'"
Flight of the scarlet ibis
"Jonathan has been sailing round the world with his family for five years, and for the past three years he has been taking wildlife photographs. It was when they anchored off the island of Lençóis on the coast of northeast Brazil that he saw his first scarlet ibis – the most beautiful birds he had ever seen. He discovered that at high tide they roosted in the mangroves and that at low tide they flew to the mudflats to feed on the crustaceans and shellfish with their probing curved beaks. He learned their favorite feeding spots and when to expect them. But they were very nervous, and so he had to be careful not to get too close, and the pictures of them on the mudflats or in the mangroves were never quite right.
"Then he had an idea: he would photograph a flock framed against the beautiful dunes that the island is famous for. At low tide, he took his dinghy into an estuary at one end of the island, anchored where he had a view of the dunes and waited. As the tide rose, so did the ibis, creating a glorious pattern of scarlet wings against the canvas of sand and tropical blue sky."
"A great crested newt hangs motionless near the surface of the stream. Also motionless in the water, in Gelderland in the Netherlands, was Edwin in a wetsuit. He had very slowly moved his compact camera right under the newt, and though he knew the shot he wanted, he had to guess at the framing and literally point and shoot. The male had just taken a breath and was possibly warming up at the surface. It was a cold April morning, and the trees were not yet in leaf, but it was mating time for these large newts, and the males were already on the lookout for females.
"Edwin took this shot as part of a major story on the threat facing amphibians throughout the Netherlands and Belgium: an Asian skin fungus similar to the one that has annihilated frogs and toads worldwide and has all but wiped out fire salamanders in the Netherlands. Scientists are bracing themselves for a collapse of European amphibian populations, unless some way is found to stop the fungus from spreading."
The company of three
"Red-footed falcons are social birds, migrating in large flocks from central and eastern Europe to southern and southwestern Africa. The closest relationships seem to be pairs or parents with first-year chicks, but otherwise, they maintain a degree of personal space. But these three red-footed falcons were different.
"Amir spent six days watching them on agricultural land near Beit Shemesh, Israel, where their flock was resting on autumn migration, refueling on insects. What fascinated him was the fact that two subadult females and the full‑grown, slate-grey male were spending most of their time together, the two females often in close physical contact, preening and touching each other. They would also hunt together from a post rather than using the more normal hovering technique. As so often happens in photography, it was on the last day in the last hour before he had to return home when the magic happened. The sun came out, the three birds perched together, and a subtle interaction took place: one female nudged the male with her talon as she flew up to make space on the branch for the other female. Exactly what the relationship was between the three birds remains a mystery."
The art of algae
"The Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park on the coast of Andalucia, Spain, is a mosaic of marshes, reedbeds, sand dunes and beaches, which attracts great numbers of birds, and in spring it is an important migration stopping-off point. Pere was there for the birds but also for a spring phenomenon, only fully visible from the air. As the temperature warms and the salinity changes, the intertidal wetlands are transformed by color as bright green seaweed intermingles with multicolored microalgal blooms. White salt deposits and brown and orange sediments colored by sulphurous bacteria and iron oxide add to the riot of color. The full display usually lasts only a few weeks in May or June, but it’s not possible to predict exactly when.
"Pere took his chances in June, hired a plane and, at midday, when the tide was out and the light was overhead, he was able to photograph the rich tapestry of color and texture. The spectacle was, said the pilot, the most beautiful he’d seen in many years of flying over the delta."
"A snatched glimpse or a movement in the shadows is how most people see an urban fox, and few know when and where it goes on its nightly rounds. It was that sense of living in the shadows that Richard wanted to convey. He had been photographing nocturnal wildlife in his back garden in Surrey, England, for several months before he had the idea for the image, given to him by the fox when it walked through the beam of a torch he had set up, casting its profile on the side of his shed. But taking the shot proved to be surprisingly difficult.
"It required placing the tripod where he could capture both the cityscape night sky and the fox silhouette, a ground-level flash for a defined shadow, a long exposure for the stars, a moonless night to cut down on the ambient light and, of course, the fox to walk between the camera and the wall at the right distance to give the perfect shadow. On the evening of this shot, the neighbors switched on a light just before the vixen arrived, unaware of her presence but adding to the image."