Best Science Photos of the Year
Shimmering against a deep-black background, a rarely seen larval cusk-eel looks more “alien with a Mohawk” than bony fish. Photographer Jeff Milisen earned the top prize in the Underwater Photography Guide’s Ocean Art Contest this year for the dazzling shot.
During the fish’s larval stage (shown in the photo), it sports a gracefully trailing blue-hued appendage holding its gut. Illuminated by the camera’s light, this digestive system takes the form of tube-like structures under the head, and extending the length of its external digestive sack.
Another amazing shot from the Ocean Art Contest, this one of a barrel jellyfish(Rhizostoma pulmo) took first place in the “Wide Angle” category. The photographer, Francesco Visintin, captured the image at Forte dei Marmi, in Tuscany, Italy. He said that several factors — rising sea temperatures, mating season, a decrease in natural predators of jellyfish, as well as winds and currents — concentrated thousands of these jellyfish in the shallow waters off the Versilia coast.
This striking face is a sarcophagus produced by the Etruscans, a culture that thrived in central Italy about 2,500 years ago, before being encompassed by Rome.
This sarcophagus was one of two seized from a warehouse in Geneva, along with other artifacts that authorities suspected had been looted from archaeological sites. Swiss officials said the objects were stored by a “former high-profile British art dealer” who’d previously been linked to looting, a description that may have referred to dealer Robin Symes.
A colorful new peacock spider shows off. Researchers discovered this new species,Maratus lobatus, along with six other new peacock spiders in western and southern Australia this year. The dramatic arachnids are known for flashing their colors during elaborate mating dances. This spider was first discovered and photographed by an insect educator named David Knowles, prompting scientists to track down the species and describe it formally.
The entire universe
A huge place scrunched into a very small space took the Internet by storm this year. Using images from NASA and some of his own “textures,” artist Pablo Carlos Budassi created a logarithmic visualization of the entire universe: with our solar system at the center, encircled by the inner and outer planets, the Kuiper belt — a disc of frozen volatiles and icy bodies, including the dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake — followed by the Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri (closest star system to our solar system), the Perseus Arm, Milky Way (our galaxy), the Andromeda galaxy, other nearby galaxies, the cosmic web of gas that stretches between galaxies, cosmic microwave radiation, and encircling the edge is the Big Bang’s invisible plasma on the edge, according to a description on Wikimedia Commons.
Stand tall, octopus
Here, a gloomy octopus (Octopus tetricus) displays a dark color and spreads its arms. The eight-armed denizen of the deep was thought to be a loner, using its clever color-changing abilities to intimidate predators, or hide from them. But this year, researchers found social behaviors: Both male and female octopuses were found to communicate with each other with both posturing and color changes.
Sean Gravem, a photographer in Pacific Grove, California, captured this golden shot of a wave right before it broke. Gravem uses a Sony a6000 camera in a CMT Water Housing to photograph waves from the water.
“The biggest challenge is that the ocean is so unpredictable,” Gravem told Live Science. “Current, tides, weather and swell are always changing and you have to be able to work with all of these together.”
Hello there! A close-up look at a Comanche harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex comanche), part of a project to curate public domain images of insects and spiders. The “Insects Unlocked” project at the University of Texas, Austin, started in summer 2015, training entomologists and students to create striking images of the state’s tiny diversity.
This adorable animal was a resident of The National Aquarium of New Zealand until last April, when it made a break for freedom.
The common New Zealand octopus, Inky, crept through a gap in the top of his tank and crawled along the aquarium floor after close one evening, making his way to a 6-inch-wide (15 centimeter) drain and dropping through. Luckily, the drainpipe led to the ocean, so Inky likely survived to enjoy his independence.
Deep in a cave in Slovenia, this “dragon” egg waits to hatch. Photographed in March, this is an olm egg. Olms (Proteus anguinus) are also known as European cave salamanders. They can grow to be up to 16 inches (40 cm) long and are pinkish-white. They get their nickname of “cave dragons” because adults look a bit like the babies of some fantastical creature.
These eggs were under the care of their mother in an aquarium at Postojna Cave, a 15-mile-long (24 km) series of passages in the southwest of Slovenia.
Pretty in pollen, this jumping spider is also a veggie-lover. In March, researchers rounded up 95 recorded instances of spiders supplementing their diets with plant foods.
A wide variety of arachnids eat everything from pollen to nectar to sap, biologists wrote in the Journal of Arachnology. About 60 percent of veggie-loving spiders are jumping spiders, like this one from Kinshasa, Congo.
Supersonic shock wave
Zooooooom! The ripples of a plane going supersonic emanate out from the face of the sunin this NASA image released in April. The photograph was taken with a method called the Schlieren technique, which uses a bright light and a mottled dark background to showcase changes in air density. (Light scatters off air of different densities, creating the rippling effect seen here.) The image the shock waves generated by a U.S. Air Force T-38C plane as it breaks the speed of sound.
A glowing green spider seems to stretch its legs in a NASA image from the constellation Auriga. The image shows the Spider Nebula, a cloud of dust and gases 10,000 light-years from Earth. It was captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All-Sky Survey, or 2MASS. For the record, the nebula isn’t really green – infrared colors, invisible to the naked eye, are shown in blue, green and red so that the nebula is visible.
This deep-sea jelly looks as if it’s about to announce that it’s come in peace. And it might as well be an alien lifeform to us landlubbers — this is a denizen of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of any ocean in the world.
The jellyfish moves by pulsating two sets of tentacles. When it extends all of its tentacles as shown in this image taken by a remotely operated vehicle, the jelly hangs in the water, motionless. Researchers suspect it might use this talent to ambush unsuspecting prey.
The beauty of Kung Fu
Human movement becomes art in this image, a still from a video piece that went on display in Hong Kong in September. German digital artist Tobias Gremmler used motion capture to track the movements of a martial artist as they went through Kung Fu drills. Gremmler then turned this motion into an abstraction of fabric. In other parts of the video, the practitioner is animated as a collection of sticks, dots, ribbons and sprays of light.
Divine eyes, lotus blossoms and snakes are among the tattoos on this mummy of an Egyptian woman who lived between 1550 B.C. and 1080 B.C. in the village of Deir el-Medina. Archaeologists first thought that these blue markings were painted on, perhaps right before burial, but closer examinations revealed that they were a permanent feature on the woman’s skin. On the woman’s neck, seen here, are Wadjet eyes, a symbol associated with divine protection. Between the eyes, right over the woman’s voice box are nefer symbols, which indicate goodness.
Jeepers! These peepers belong to net-casting spiders (Deinopis), which use their wide eyes to hunt at night. These spiders live in Florida, southern Georgia and Costa Rica and build net-like webs to catch prey like ants and crickets.
Researchers tested these spiders’ visual acuity by temporarily painting over their pair of large eyes with dental silicon to see if they could still catch prey. The spiders with covered eyes less prey, and struggled especially to catch larger walking insects, than spiders who could see out of their large eyes. The spiders’ six smaller eyes didn’t seem to help them much, the researchers reported in the journal Biology Letters.
A crowd of cuttlefish gathers in the Spencer Gulf of South Australia. These Giant Australian cuttlefish (Sepia apama) were in decline, prompting researchers to investigate how cephalopods, the group that includes cuttlefish and octopuses, are doing worldwide. To their surprise, they found that the group as a whole has increased in numbers over the past 60 years. Even Giant Australian cuttlefish recovered during the study period, the researchers reported in the journal Current Biology. Because cephalopods grow rapidly and have short lifespans, they may be particularly adaptable to changing ocean conditions, the researchers concluded.
How big of squid might be trawling the deep sea? Researchers reported in the Journal of Zoology in May that giant squid (Architeuthis dux) may grow 65 feet (20 meters) long, longer than a school bus.
Since giant squid don’t exactly hang out in shallow waters, little is known about them. Anatomical information comes mostly from corpses that wash ashore, like this one. This photograph of a 30-foot-long giant squid was taken in 2013 in Cantabria, Spain.
Another photograph in the National Geographic traveling exhibition was this 1977 long-exposure shot. Photographer Bruce Dale mounted a camera on a jumbo jet’s tail and took a 25-second-long exposure showing the runway lights as the plane approaches for landing.
A Blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melantopterus) cruises through sun-dappled waters near the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. By tracking sharks as they moved through a deep channel here, researchers found that the animals follow a daily schedule, including a “rush hour” in and out of the lagoon between 7 and 8 o’clock each night.
Now here’s a looker: This is Lasiognatus dinema, a newly discovered anglerfish found in the Gulf of Mexico during a damage assessment after the 2010 Deepwater horizon oil spill.
“The thing is so ugly, you can’t help but stop and look at it,” said Quentin Wheeler, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The protrusion on the anglerfish’s head is a lure to attract prey. The fish made the college’s 2016 list of the top 10 new species discovered in the previous year.
Titled “Three Pillars,” this image snagged first place as the up & coming underwater photographer of the year in the Underwater Photography of the Year contest in 2016. He shot the gorgeous photo of sharks at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas.
Here’s what he told the photo contest officials of the shot: ” Weary of shooting sharks head-on, and keen to avoid diver’s bubbles in my shot, I decided to turn away from the peak action and the crowds it attracts. I wanted sun rays, dramatic foreground, background perspective, and – the cherry on top – to capture the ‘master of the house’ in all of its mystique. The three sponges were well-positioned to set the scene beneath the boat and it took countless shots to balance the elements I wanted; but perseverance, patience and practice all paid off. I would like to dedicate my first winning shot to my father, for his introduction to photography, and to my mother for passing on her resilient attitude.”
This usually dormant black hole was seen devouring a star, scientists reported this year. The event was first detected in 2011, but happened a much longer time ago: This supermassive black hole is 3.9 billion light-years from Earth.
A supermassive black hole like this one is typically dormant, but researchers were fortunate to detect this one gobbling up a star that fell under its gravitational influence. Measuring the forces at work could help demystify how black holes grow to these enormous sizes, the scientists reported in June.
Earth’s lava lamp
Huge, mysterious blobs of hot, possibly molten, rock were discovered deep beneath Earth this year. Located beneath the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the blobs are each so large they would be as tall as Mount Everest. They start where the planet’s mantle layer touches the core. Like lava lamps, the hot blobs send plumes up through the rock, the researchers said.
A bizarre-looking ant this year may lack fire-breathing capabilities, but its spiny ornamentation reminded researchers of Drogon, one of the dragons from the “Game of Thrones,” so much so that they named it Pheidole drogon after fire-breathing star of the popular fantasy series. The scientists captured P. drogon‘s body in detail using 3D-imaging technology, called micro computed-tomography, which also helped them to identify the ant.
“This is one of the first studies in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT,” study co-author Evan Economo, head of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), said in a statement.
A denizen of the underwater cliffs and rocky seafloor of the deep Caribbean Sea near Curaçao, this riotously colorful scorpionfish came out of hiding this year for scientists during a Smithsonian Institution expedition.
The fish, named Scorpaenodes barrybrowni after nature photographer Barry Brown, spends its time in waters between about 310 and 525 feet (95 to 160 meters) down. The splashy tropical fish is distinguished from other scorpionfish by its starbursts of color and the elongated rays on its fins.
Photographer Alex Wild, a curator of entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, launched a project called “Insects Unlocked” to help curators and students master photographic techniques for snapping the best images of insects both in the field and in museums. These public-domain images are then uploaded to the project site for all to view.
Here, a gorgeous sweat bee, in the family Halictidae.
A cute-as-can-be purple squid with googly eyes was discovered this year off the coast of Southern California. The stubby squid (Rossia pacifica), a species of bobtail squid, is native to the northern Pacific Ocean, where it spends time along the seafloor at depths of around 984 feet (300 meters).
The nocturnal hunter is not just cute: “They actually have this pretty awesome superpower, they can turn on a little sticky mucus jacket over their body and sort of collect bits of sand or pebbles or whatever they’re burrowing into and make a really nice camouflage jacket,” said Samantha Wishnak, a science communication fellow aboard the E/V Nautilus. “When they go to ambush something and prey on something, they’re able to sort of turn off that mucus jacket.”
If insects could be ballerinas … This parasitoid wasp, and three others, were discovered in China, scientists reported this year. They are quite dainty, under a half-inch (13 millimeters), with elongated necks, dangling legs and eyes that extend nearly to their mouths. Their heads are covered in a satin-like sheen. The species shown here is calledGasteruption pannuceum (from the Latin word “pannuceus,” meaning “wrinkled”), named for the wrinkled sheath covering its midbody.
Exquisite gold earrings with images of dragons and a human face were discovered in the tomb of a woman named Farong, in Datong City, China. The earrings were also decorated with gold, teardrop-shaped designs inlaid with gemstones, the archaeologists said.
Though the woman’s remains were in poor condition, she had been buried, some 1,500 years ago, with lavish jewelry, including the two earrings and a necklace of 5,000 beads. An epitaph in the entranceway to the tomb read: “Han Farong, the wife of Magistrate Cui Zhen.”
You may not want to wear this dress, but it’s stunning to look at. And it tells a story of science. Artist Sigalit Landau submerged a 1920s-style long, black dress in Israel’s Dead Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, for two months. The hypersalinity turned the black dress into a sparkling beauty. Here’s how: Salt will crystallize out of high-salt solutions, tending to make these crystals in spots that are the saltiest, leading to crystal growth. As the salt crystallized onto the gown, the cycle of crystallization just continued. The salty sculpture was on view this year at the Marlborough Contemporary museum in London.
Squishy and cute
A cute robot? Yep. And it’s squishy too. This year, scientists unveiled a rubbery little “octobot” (just 2.5 inches, or 6 centimeters, long and wide) that represented the first robot made completely from soft parts. The eight-armed bot doesn’t need batteries, being driven pneumatically by steady streams of oxygen gas.