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More than 100 photos from the contest go on display this weekend at the Royal Ontario Museum

From a horseshoe crab gliding over mud to a mushroom surrounded by a cloud of spores, some of the images in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition seem as if they’re from another world. Other photos offer a glimpse of how nature intersects with the urban environment, or how humans have cut an irreversible swath through otherwise pristine areas.

Run every year since 1965, the competition is the oldest of its type in the world. Photographers of all skill levels submit images for judging – almost 50,000 entries this year – in categories including animal portraits, urban wildlife and underwater photography.

An exhibition of 100 photos from the contest, run by London’s Natural History Museum, opens Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum, showcasing the incredible skill needed to capture parts of our world that seem out of this world.

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The art of courtship, by Rachel Bigsby, U.K.

Winner, Natural Artistry Taken at Noss National Nature Reserve, Shetland, Scotland

Rachel Bigsby frames a gannet pair against the guano-painted curves of sandstone cliffs.

From her boat in turbulent sea swell, Rachel realized that achieving her vision of showcasing gannets set against the towering cliffs would be tricky. But as the boat aligned with the rocks, she spotted this pair “isolated on a lower ledge, intertwining their necks and framed by streaks of guano.”

Each summer, the Isle of Noss hosts more than 22,000 northern gannets, which return to breed on the ledges carved by the elements. This species was hardest hit by the 2022 avian flu outbreak.

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Last gasp, by Lennart Verheuvel, the Netherlands

Winner, Oceans: The Bigger Picture Taken at Cadzand-Bad, Zeeland, the Netherlands

Lennart Verheuvel shows the final moments of a beached orca. Lying on its side in the surf, this orca had only a short time left to live. Initially rescued, it soon was stranded again on the beach and died. A study later revealed that not only was it severely malnourished, it was also extremely sick.

Research shows that orcas in European waters have the world’s highest concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls. These banned chemicals can persist for many years in marine food webs, weakening immune systems and reducing breeding success in whales, porpoises and dolphins.

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The dead river, by Joan de la Malla, Spain

Winner, Wetlands – The Bigger Picture Taken at the Ciliwung River, Jakarta

Joan de la Malla provides a bird’s-eye view of the polluted Ciliwung River winding through Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. To find a time when lower air pollution allowed a clear view, Joan returned to the scene over several days. His image documents one of the most polluted rivers in the world and illustrates the growing global issue of river pollution.

Plastic rubbish, human waste, agricultural fertilizers and factory waste are suffocating the Ciliwung River. As a result, Jakarta’s residents are having to use groundwater for drinking water. This has resulted in widespread subsidence and the city is now sinking.

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Lights fantastic, by Sriram Murali, India

Winner, Behaviour: Invertebrates Taken at Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, India

Sriram Murali showcases a night sky and a forest illuminated with fireflies. Sriram combined fifty 19-second exposures to show the firefly flashes produced over 16 minutes in the forests near his hometown. The firefly flashes start at twilight, with just a few, before the frequency increases and they pulse in unison like a wave across the forest.

Fireflies, which are in fact beetles, are famous for attracting mates using bioluminescence. Darkness is a necessary ingredient in the success of this process. Light pollution affects many nocturnal creatures, but fireflies are especially susceptible.

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The tadpole banquet, by Juan Jesús Gonzalez Ahumada, Spain

Winner, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles Taken at Ojén, Málaga, Spain

Juan Jesús Gonzalez Ahumada watches as toad tadpoles feast on a dead fledgling sparrow. The drama unfolded near Juan’s home when a newly fledged sparrow launched itself from a nest on his neighbour’s roof and fell into a nearby pond, where it drowned. Juan had to pick his moment to show the tadpole formation and the sparrow’s eye.

Common toad tadpoles have varied diets consisting of algae, vegetation, and tiny swimming invertebrates. As they grow larger, they become more carnivorous so when a banquet like this arrives, they take full advantage.

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Silence for the snake show, by Hadrien Lalagüe, France

Winner, Behaviour: Birds Taken at Guiana Space Center, between Kourou and Sinnamary, French Guiana

Hadrien Lalagüe is rewarded for his patience with a perfect alignment of grey-winged trumpeters watching a boa slither past. Hadrien set up his camera trap by a track in the rainforest surrounding Guiana Space Center. He spent the next six months maintaining the camera kit against high humidity, plastic-munching ants and damage by poachers. This image was his reward.

Trumpeters – named for their loud calls – spend most of their time foraging on the forest floor, eating ripe fruits, insects and the occasional small snake. The boa constrictor, more than three metres long, could have made a meal of them.

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Whales making waves, by Bertie Gregory, U.K.

Winner, Behaviour: Mammals Taken at the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

Bertie Gregory tracks a pod of orcas as they prepare to “wave wash” a Weddell seal.

Bertie took two month-long expeditions searching for orcas. “We spent every waking minute on the roof of the boat, scanning,” he says. After battling high winds and freezing conditions, he captured this remarkable behaviour with his drone.

These orcas belong to a group that specializes in hunting seals by charging towards the ice, creating a wave that washes the seal into the water. With rising temperatures melting ice floes, seals are spending more time on land, and the behaviour of “wave washing” may disappear.

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Face of the forest, by Vishnu Gopal, India

Winner, Animal Portraits Taken at Tapiraí, São Paulo, Brazil

Vishnu Gopal records the moment a lowland tapir steps cautiously out of the swampy Brazilian rainforest.

Finding hoofprints on a forest track near his campsite, Vishnu waited nearby. An hour later, the tapir appeared. Using a long exposure and torchlight to capture texture and movement, Vishnu framed the tapir’s side-turned head as it emerged from the forest.

Lowland tapirs rely on the forest for their diet of fruit and other vegetation and in turn the tapirs act as seed dispersers. This important relationship is threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting and traffic collisions.

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Last breath of autumn, by Agorastos Papatsanis, Greece

Winner, Plants and Fungi Taken at Mount Olympus, Pieria, Greece

Agorastos Papatsanis reveals the magic of a fungus releasing its spores in the forest.

Long fascinated by fungi, Agorastos used his silver photographic umbrella to stop his camera getting wet, and covered his carefully positioned flash with a plastic bag. The colourful touches come from refraction of the light passing through the spore-laden air currents and rain.

Parasol mushrooms release spores from the gills under their cap. Billions of tiny spores travel – usually unseen – in the air currents. Some will land where there is moisture and food, enabling them to grow networks under the forest floor.

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Hippo nursery, by Mike Korostelev, Russia

Winner, Underwater Taken at Kosi Bay, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Mike Korostelev reveals a hippopotamus and her two offspring resting in the shallow clear-water lake.

For over two years Mike has been visiting the hippos in this lake and knew they were accustomed to his boat. He spent just 20 seconds under water with them – enough time to get this image from a safe distance and to avoid alarming the mother.

Hippos produce one calf every two to three years. Their slow-growing population is particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation, drought, and illegal hunting for meat and ivory from their teeth.

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Birds of the midnight sun, by Knut-Sverre Horn, Norway

Winner, Urban Wildlife Taken at Vardø, Troms og Finnmark, Norway

Knut-Sverre Horn offers a glimpse of kittiwake chicks illuminated in an abandoned factory.

From his vantage point inside an abandoned fish-processing factory, Knut-Sverre kept watch on the black-legged kittiwakes tending to their chicks on the windowsill. As midnight approached, the low summer sun struck the north-facing window, sharpening the birds’ silhouettes and giving him the image that he wanted.

Kittiwakes naturally nest on the narrow ledges of high, steep coastal cliffs. Recently numbers have plummeted, and some have headed for urban areas due to shortages of food caused by warming oceans and pollution.

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The tourism bulldozer, by Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar, Mexico

Winner, Photojournalism Taken at Paamul, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar shows the devastating path of a new cross-country tourist railway line.

To reach a point from where he could launch his drone, Fernando was guided through four kilometres of an underground cave system. The result of his challenging trek was this image.

The government-funded railway line connecting tourist destinations brings economic benefits to Mexico’s southeast, but it also fragments ecosystems, threatens protected reserves and archaeological sites, and impacts Indigenous peoples. While trains are a more environmentally friendly form of transport, conservationists warn of devastating consequences.

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The unprotected, by Karine Aigner, U.S.

Winner, Photojournalist Story Award

Contestants line up to have their bobcats weighed in the March 2022 West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, the highest-paying predator-hunting contest in the United States. There are a number of prizes, one of which is for the heaviest bobcat. In 2022 the winner of that category took home US$35,530 (around £28,000).

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Alpine exposure, by Luca Melcarne, France

Winner, Rising Star Portfolio Award

To enable an early ascent into ibex territory, Luca had spent a bitterly cold night in a temporary shelter in the French Alps, having skied for six hours across the natural park. Luca thawed his camera with his breath and took the ibex’s portrait.

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The wall of wonder, by Vihaan Talya Vikas, India

Winner, 10 Years and Under • Taken at Nallur Heritage Tamarind Grove, Karnataka, India

Vihaan Talya Vikas watches as an ornamental tree trunk spider prevents its prey from escaping.

This was Vihaan’s first visit to the tamarind grove. Fascinated by stories of the Hindu god Krishna, it seemed to Vihaan as if the spider had positioned its web after being entranced by the sound of Krishna’s flute.

This spider is an orb weaver, which creates a wheel-shaped web of sticky threads to catch flying insects. As the spider grows, it elongates its web, which entangles anything that lands on it.

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Out of the blue, by Ekaterina Bee, Italy

Winner, 11-14 Years Taken at Portree, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Ekaterina Bee shares her intimate encounter with some common bottlenose dolphins.

Ekaterina’s trip to the west coast of Scotland was filled with wildlife encounters, but bottlenose dolphins were an unexpected surprise. From the boat she composed this image, which highlights the surface patterns on the water created by the dolphins’ movements.

Common bottlenose dolphins can be found throughout the world’s oceans except in polar regions. Living in small groups, they are highly social animals, and are one of the top marine predators living in Scottish waters.

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Owls’ road house by Carmel Bechler, Israel

Winner, 15-17 Years Taken at Hof HaSharon, Israel

Carmel Bechler discovered several barn owls in an abandoned concrete building near a busy road.

Returning to where he had spotted a barn owl the previous year, Carmel and his father used the family car as a hide. He made the most of the natural light and used long exposure times to capture the light trails of passing traffic.

Israel has the densest barn-owl population in the world. A national project has provided nesting boxes near agricultural fields, encouraging owls to nest near farmland. Because the owls hunt rodents that eat seeds and crops, this arrangement has reduced the use of pesticides on farms.

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The ancient mariner, by Laurent Ballesta, France

Winner, Portfolio Award

A tri-spine horseshoe crab moves slowly over the mud. Its golden protective carapace hides 12 appendages. Above the horseshoe crab, a trio of juvenile golden trevallies are poised to dart down for edible morsels ploughed up by its passage.

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Life on the edge by Amit Eshel, Israel

Winner, Animals in their Environment Taken in the Zin Desert, Israel

Amit Eshel witnesses a dramatic cliffside clash between two Nubian ibex.

After hiking to a vantage point on the clifftop, Amit slowly crept closer, using a wide-angle lens to set the action of two clashing Nubian ibex against the dramatic backdrop. The battle lasted for about 15 minutes before one male surrendered, and the pair parted without serious injury.

In the run-up to the mating season, part of the males’ coat darkens, and their neck muscles thicken. Rivals will raise up on their hind legs and ram their heads together. Their horns sometimes break as they collide.

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