Beauty and horror. Those two concepts coexist in the winning image of the BMC Ecology and Evolution journal's 2022 photography contest.
The winner, announced Friday, shows a fly facing the camera with a parasitic fungus extending from its body on stalks. One of the judges described it as "like something out of science fiction."
The image competition looks to shine a light on wild and wonderful views of the natural world. The entrants are all affiliated with research institutions. The top finisher comes from evolutionary biologist Roberto Garcia-Roa of the University of Valencia, Spain. Garcia-Roa captured the photo in a jungle in Peru.
The fungus was a death sentence for the fly.
"The image depicts a conquest that has been shaped by thousands of years of evolution," Garcia-Roa said in a statement. "The spores of the so-called 'zombie' fungus have infiltrated the exoskeleton and mind of the fly and compelled it to migrate to a location that is more favorable for the fungus's growth. The fruiting bodies have then erupted from the fly's body and will be jettisoned in order to infect more victims."
The journal picked winners and runners-up in categories for Relationships in Nature, Biodiversity under Threat, Life Close Up and Research in Action. All of the images are worth a look. They depict a wide range of subjects, from the ethereal moment when a waxwing bird eats a berry to a researcher surrounded by thousands of treefrogs.
The competition is also about raising awareness of human impacts on the natural world. The judges weighed the science stories behind the images just as much as the composition and visual appeal. One of the notable photos shows a seabird's stomach full of plastic waste. It's not beautiful, but it is meaningful for the story it tells of human encroachment on vulnerable wildlife.