In a year of political turmoil and shock, science, too, came up with surprises. To document some of these wonders, photographers roamed the world, revealing objects from the microscopic to the cosmic in scale.


Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) converge on Platte River in Nebraska as part of their annual migration. Photographer Randy Olson was taking long-exposure shots in March when lightning struck, creating these ghostly outlines.

Credit: Randy Olson/National Geographic


The vast tusk of a long-dead mammoth is carried out of a forest in Yakutia, Siberia. Ancient ivory from mammoths has become so valuable that some prospectors now illegally ‘mine’ them from permafrost. A large tusk can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Credit: Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe


This long-exposure shot shows the November launch of a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It ferried Peggy Whitson, Oleg Novitskiy and Thomas Pesquet to the International Space Station.

Credit: Zuma Press/eyevine


This spectacular tarsus — the lowermost segment of an insect leg — is roughly 2 millimetres in diameter and belongs to a male diving beetle, which uses it to attach to a female’s back during mating.

Credit: Igor Siwanowicz/Nikon Small World 2016


The largest and most accurate radiosurvey of the southern sky was unveiled in October by the high-resolution Galactic and Extragalactic All-sky Murchison Widefield Array (GLEAM) project. The Milky Way flows through this image, which encompasses more than 300,000 galaxies.

Credit: Natasha Hurley-Walker (Curtin/ICRAR), GLEAM team


China this year revealed ambitious plans to cut coal use and pollution and to embrace renewable energy. But this steel plant in Inner Mongolia is just one example of the many industries that stand in the way of that reform.

Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty


Far below the International Space Station, lightning flashes illuminate the clouds, as human activity is revealed by clusters of lights. Two Russian spacecraft visiting the station can be seen in the foreground.

Credit: NASA


These strange structures are calcium carbonate crystals, imaged at 2,000× magnification.

Credit: Christine Kimpton/RPS International Images for Science 2016


In April, remarkable images of ancient Egyptian tattoos found on a mummy were shown at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The tattoos include two seated baboons and a symbol of protection on the mummy's neck.

Credit: Anne Austin


In August, a team in Germany unveiled ‘ultimate DISCO’ — a technique that both renders tissues transparent and shrinks specimens, so that a whole animal can be imaged in one go. The technique can reveal the nervous system and organ systems within a body in unprecedented detail.

Credit: C. Pan et al./Nature Methods


This human stem cell is just 15 micrometres across, and was false-coloured after being imaged using cryogenic scanning electron microscopy.

Credit: S. A Ferreira, C. Lopo & E. Gentleman, KCL/Wellcome


In compiling this year’s collection of stunning photographs, members of the Nature team each identified an image that said something special about science. Here is their personal take on the past 12 months.


Lizzy Brown (Associate media editor): “This picture of a blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) was taken by James Lea on a field trip in the Seychelles earlier this year. Lea and his colleagues have been tracking sharks to test the effectiveness of local marine protected areas. The image stood out thanks to its simple composition and the way it evokes a sense of eerie calm, with the menace of the shark lurking just beneath the surface.”

Credit: James Lea


Greg Kendall-Ball (Media editor): “When I came across this picture, I had to do a double-take to figure out what it was I was seeing. While some deployed specialist equipment to safely watch the 1 September annular eclipse, these people in Tanzania simply made use of a dark puddle. We’re used to conventional photographic or television renderings of these phenomena, but this different angle, this improvisation, struck me.”

Credit: Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty


Daniel Cressey (Senior reporter): “Images of flooding often focus on the dynamic power of these events — dramatic escapes from rising waters or items being carried away by raging cataracts. This is a different, and in many ways as scary, view — the total calm and absence of people in the aftermath of floods in Denham Springs, Louisiana, in August.”

Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty


Ffion Cleverley (Media editor): “Alastair Philip Wiper’s fascination with factory floors, machinery and negative space is always a joy to see. This unusual image from his visit to the High Voltage Laboratory at the Technical University of Denmark in June stuck with me for the rest of the year.”

Credit: Alastair Philip Wiper/Science Photo Library


Chris Maddaloni (Managing photo editor): “I was quite taken with the apocalyptic scenes of the oil fires burning during the Mosul offensive in Iraq that came over the wires this year. Many of the photos emphasized the low, black skies or semi-posed people in front of the flames. Although the scale of the man in this photo, surrounded by raging flames, was compelling, it was the mysterious film-still-like tone to this image that really stood out. The massive environmental damage and scope of these fires seem to be a symbol of the human cost exacted in this region.”

Credit: Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty


Kelly Krause (Creative director): “If I have one photography soft spot, it’s frogs. The shine, that smile, the eyes you fall into. This one, shot by legendary wildlife photographer Joel Sartore, is the world’s last Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum), named Toughie. He died this year — his species is now extinct.”

Credit: Joel Sartore/NGC