Red squirrel appears to wear a yellow flower as a hat.
Red squirrel appears to wear a yellow flower as a hat. (Photo: Geert Weggen/

It's not everyday you see an adorable red squirrel wearing a flower as a hat, but that's what makes photography so great — capturing magnificent, one-of-a-kind moments and freezing them in time for others to enjoy.

That's exactly what judges for the 13th annual Smithsonian Photo Contest were hoping to highlight as they sifted through more than 46,000 submissions from photographers hailing from around the world. All the images were divided among seven categories, which include people, travel, natural world, American experience, mobile, altered images and a brand new category called sustainable travel.

The judges, which are comprised of editors from Smithsonian magazine and, are expected to announce the winners later this spring. In addition to the grand prize and category winners picked by these judges, there will also be a readers' choice winner, which will be decided by photography lovers like you!

Continue below for a selection of our favorite wildlife photographs from the contest, which are accompanied by the photographer's descriptions. To check out the work of all of the finalists and cast your vote for reader's choice, visit the contest website!

"Catching Fish"

Dalmation pelicans in Lake Kerkini, Greece.
(Photo: Simone Sbaraglia/
"This photograph was taken in January 2015 on Lake Kerkini, Greece. The dalmatian pelicans that inhabit that area have grown accustomed to humans since fishermen have fed them for hundreds of years. Their presence helps maintain a balanced ecosystem."

"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"

A male yellow-headed jawfish is seen incubating his brood within its mouth.
(Photo: Suzan Meldonian/
"This is a yellow-headed jawfish male that incubates its eggs (or its brood) in its mouth. That’s right — the male carries the babies. In the beginning, the jawfish is able to swallow the eggs, keeping them hidden, and occasionally spits them out to grab a bite, then sucks them back in, all in one gulp. It is fascinating to watch, and quite a challenge. The challenge gets tougher as the brood develops and gets larger."

"Wildebeest Leap"

A migrating wildebeest leaps into a river in Maasai Mara, Kenya.
(Photo: Ricardo Cisneros/
"This photograph was taken in Kenya at the Maasai Mara reserve during the annual wildebeest migration. The wildebeest population is strong and provides nourishment for all the ecosystem. I had the desire to photograph the wildebeest after reading about their great migration and how they face dangers in their journey."

"Mating Red-Eyed Tree Frogs"

A pair of red-eye tree frogs engaging in amplexus.
(Photo: Jennifer Guyton/
A male red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) takes a cheeky nap atop a female while he waits for her to lay eggs. This position is called "amplexus," and it puts the male in position to externally fertilize the female's eggs as soon as she has laid them.

"Synchronous Fireflies"

Synchronized fireflies
Synchronized fireflies (Photo: Radim Schreiber/
"I took this photo of fireflies (lightning bugs) in almost complete darkness using the latest low-light camera technology. I was completely surrounded by the fireflies and witnessed one of the most amazing and magical natural phenomena: fireflies that synchronize."

"Leatherback Pair"

Sea turtle hatchlings make their way out into the Florida surf.
(Photo: Ben Hicks/
"As often as I can, I go out and explore the world’s oceans with my cameras. I also strive to document the work of others protecting and conserving our environment, specifically in the world of sea turtle conservation. During nesting season, I go out with our amazing biologists, scientists and volunteers who help to protect and document sea turtle habitats in South Florida. These turtles face a huge battle of survival on their upcoming "travels" and every person I can impact with their picture is a win!

"While I was documenting the work of South Florida researchers, a handful of hatchling leatherback sea turtles were given a second chance at life. The way these two ended up walking out alongside each other was an amazing moment that I was able to witness and share."

"A Little Monkey on the Cliff"

A Japanese macaque sits next to a hot spring at the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
(Photo: Hidetoshi Ogata/
A cold front hit the Nagano prefecture. I saw a little monkey enduring the cold in Jigokudani Monkey Park. This little monkey is really cute.

"Great Egret in Breeding Colors"

A great egret displays its impressive plumage at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida.
(Photo: Sidney Schnyder/
"The photo was taken at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida. This is a manmade wetlands with a boardwalk, created by the local water company to act as a water filter. I typically spend 1-2 hours there, 5-6 days per week just enjoying nature and taking photographs. This has been a terrific learning experience for me as I have become aware of the many species of birds and wildlife that live there and their habits. This photo was taken shortly after the peak breeding season."

"Muscle Power"

Sparring tigers in India.
(Photo: Archna Singh/
"These two sub-adult tiger cubs, aged around 21 months, are engaged in a mock fight, a part of their learning process to acquire stalking and self-defense skills. Taking advantage of the fact that a sibling’s attention was diverted for a moment, the other charged her and what was witnessed was a sheer moment of awe when these beautiful and magnificent animals were standing upright just for a moment and you could see the rippling muscles and the power that these biggest cats hold.

"No more than a few seconds and it was all over where one of the siblings is seen lying down in a submissive position – a pose that tells the opponent that the rival has surrendered."


Mandrills at the Madrid Zoo Aquarium.
(Photo: Pedro Jarque Krebs/
"This is an altered image, composed from portraits of two mandrills living at the Madrid Zoo Aquarium. I took the photos in February 2015. The light, the distance and general conditions were extremely complicated. That's why I had to apply diverse exposure and contrast corrections, among others. The black background that recreates an image in the studio was done in post-processing, isolating the animals from the rest of the environment to focus on the subject."

"The Little Jumping Spider"

Fuzzy spider in New Jersey, U.S.
(Photo: Barbara Storms/
"A jumping spider, smaller than a chocolate chip, sits on a begonia flower petal. I did not travel far and wide, or to any remote corners of the Earth, to capture this photo. I actually took it in my hometown of Tewksbury, NJ, USA. Not glamorous, I know. But the reality is, some of the most magnificent and beautiful creatures can be found right in your own backyard."

"Alaskan Brown Bear"

Alaskan brown bear in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
(Photo: David Shaffer/
"In July 2015, my wife gifted me with a trip of a lifetime: an opportunity to spend time with wild Alaskan brown bears at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska. I was truly blessed being in the presence of these magnificent giants living in an unspoiled wilderness. Experiencing coastal brown bears in their natural habitat was something I will never forget. From a respectable distance, I was able to observe bears just being bears.

"One day, I was enjoying and photographing the incredible spectacle of bears fishing for spawning salmon when I noticed this young bear nestled in the thick vegetation on the opposite bank. It appeared as if she was bit intimidated by the larger, more confident adults that crowded the river. It also struck me that she was intently observing, and certainly learning, the art of catching fish from her safe and secluded location. I was witnessing a special time in the life of a young bear coming of age."

"A King Penguin Feels the Surf Rush"

A king penguin stands in the surf of the Gold Harbour in South Georgia.
(Photo: Beverly Houwing/
"A king penguin standing in the surf along the beach at Gold Harbour on South Georgia. A view of the dramatic mountains and landscape is in the background. This colony is home to about 500,000 king penguins and has many elephant and fur seals lounging about on the beaches. The distant mountains have glaciers, and the landscape there is very scenic."

"The Tree Hugger"

An Indian leopard hugs a tree in the Kabini Forest Reserve of India's Nagarhole National Park.
(Photo: Suyash Keshari/
"The Indian leopard, particularly in the southern region of India, is weary of the high concentration of tigers, wild dogs and sloth bears and therefore spends most of its time on high tree branches. I was at a safari in India's Kabini Forest Reserve, a park that forms the Nagarhole National Park, which is one of the biggest environmentally pristine complexes in India and hosts the highest number of tigers in the world. The southwest monsoon had turned the landscape into a deep green shade, and I felt as though each petal of a tree had been meticulously painted.

"As my thoughts grew deeper, suddenly our driver stopped and pointed out to a leopard perched up a tree. This was the first time seeing a leopard. I was awestruck for a few seconds and then I quickly got the camera, adjusted the settings and started clicking."

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.