NEWS

The best science images of the year: 2018 in pictures

California’s worst wildfires, cloned monkey twins, the world’s smallest house and more.

Search for this author in:

A plane drops fire retardant to help stop the spread of the River Fire burning in California.

California’s wildfires dominated headlines in 2018. Here, an aeroplane drops fire retardant in an area north of San Francisco in August. Credit: Mark McKenna/Zuma Press/PA

2018 will go down in history as a scorcher: deadly wildfires and droughts raged from California to Cape Town. The year also brought advances in cloning and imaging — and a bleak reminder of the fragility of some of Earth’s rarest species. Here are the striking shots from science and the natural world that caught the eyes of Nature’s editors.

A model house which is also only 20 micrometers long

Credit: Femto-ST/Caters

Extreme downsizing

In May, a team at the Femto-ST Institute in Besançon, France, used nanoassembly tools — a focused ion beam, a gas-injection system and a tiny, manoeuvrable robot — to build this 20-micrometre-long house from silica.

Cultured spiral ganglion neurons from a mouse

Credit: Stephen Freeman and Laurence Delacroix/Nikon Small World 2018

Sound system

Cell biologists Stephen Freeman and Laurence Delacroix at Liège University in Belgium won distinction in the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition with this image of neurons in a mouse’s inner ear. The neurons are cultured in vitro to study how neurons mature and become damaged.

Swirling clouds in Jupiter's dynamic North Temperate Belt.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

Storm and swirl

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, now in the eighth year of its mission to Jupiter, offered rich data and spectacular images of the gas giant. Swirling clouds and a large storm — the white oval — are seen here in the planet’s dynamic northern hemisphere.

SpaceX successfully launched the PAZ satellite rocket.

Credit: SpaceX

To infinity

US company SpaceX continued its dominance in the commercial spaceflight arena, making a suite of rocket launches and landings. This February’s launch from California carried a radar satellite and two Starlink satellites — part of the firm’s ultimate goal to provide Internet worldwide.

A wildlife ranger comforts Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, as it dies

Credit: Ami Vitale/National Geographic Creative

Dying days

The world’s last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in March in Kenya. Only two females survive — and researchers are exploring ambitious in vitro fertilization techniques to save the subspecies (Ceratotherium simum cottoni).

Cleared-and-stained Roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis) fluorescing under high-energy light.

Credit: Matthew G. Girard

X-ray vision

In September, ecologist W. Leo Smith at the University of Kansas in Lawrence published a new imaging technique, used on this roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis). The method involves stripping away an organism’s muscles and staining its bones.

The empty reservoir of Steenbras Upper Dam during the drought in South Africa.

Credit: Kelvin Trautman

South Africa’s crippling drought

Three years of record-breaking drought in South Africa prompted officials in Cape Town to consider a dramatic move: shutting off taps completely. City resident and photographer Kelvin Trautman captured the scale of the crisis in this image of an empty reservoir at Steenbras Upper Dam.

Two cloned macaques named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua

Credit: Jin Liwang/Xinhua/Zuma

Two of a kind

Meet Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. The macaque twins, introduced to the world by Chinese researchers in January, were the first primates to be born using a cloning technique similar to that used to produce Dolly the sheep. Primates had proved difficult to copy using standard techniques.

A fern’s sorus

Credit: Rogelio Moreno Gill/Nikon Small World 2018

Small-world spores

This 10×-magnified ultraviolet image of a fern sorus — the structure that produces and contains the plant’s spores — won Rogelio Moreno Gill second place in the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition.

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) of Tupanvirus particles.

Credit: J. Abrahão et al./Nat. Commun.

Giant genome

A newly discovered giant Tupanvirus, found in amoebae, has both the longest tail and the largest set of genes involved in protein-making of any known virus.

Scientists play football on the ice.

Credit: Marius Vagenes Villanger/Kystvakten/Sjoforsvaret/NTB Scanpix/Reuters

Warming up

An Arctic game of football is a risky business. During a match in March on an ice floe near Greenland, armed guards watched for polar bears while scientists from Norway’s Institute of Marine Research and crew from a naval ice-breaker played.

Gannets hunt pelagic fish like mackerel by diving into the sea from a height of 30 meters.

Credit: Greg Lecoeur/UPY2018

Deep dive

Gannets in Scottish waters dive to hunt for mackerel and other fish. The birds drop from a height of 30 metres, achieving speeds of 100 kilometres per hour. The image won third place in the behaviour category of the Underwater Photographer of the Year Competition.

A PERSONAL VIEW OF THE NEWS

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

An image of a single positively-charged strontium atom, held near motionless by electric fields

Credit: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford

Extreme zoom

Kelly Krause (Creative director): “Look closely at the centre of this image and you will see a single atom, held near-motionless by electric fields. This astonishing image was created by David Nadlinger at the University of Oxford, UK, who set out to capture an atom that could be seen with the naked eye — a world first. It’s wonderful what one can accomplish on a quiet Sunday morning in the lab.”

Colour modified image of elevation data gathered from the Porcupine and Draanjik Rivers in Alaska

Credit: Daniel Coe

Downstream, uphill

Wesley Fernandes (Art director): “The Porcupine and Draanjik Rivers twist their way westwards toward the Yukon River in Alaska. The image, in which colours represent relative elevations (darker is higher), was derived from radar data from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources in Anchorage. This is a stunning and fascinating way to visualize the flow of water — it really stood out from a lot of the imagery that we saw this year.”

Firefighters tackle a wildfire on Winter Hill near Bolton.

Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

Timeless struggle

Chris Maddaloni (Managing photo editor): “Firefighters tackle a wildfire on Winter Hill near Bolton, in the United Kingdom. There were a tremendous amount of amazing and grim fire-related photos this year. However, something about this one — with the simultaneous mix of looking both like the past and a future dystopia — stuck with me.”

An owl sits on the beach in Malibu as the Woolsey Fire approaches

Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty

No day on the beach

Amelia Hennighausen (US media editor): “Initially, this photo seemed serene. Realizing the owl had fled from the most destructive fire Los Angeles county has ever experienced, and landed in a safe place on a beach in Malibu, is only a temporary comfort. Probably, its habitat has been destroyed, because you see the fire raging unabated in the background. We often talk of weather disasters in terms of the financial loss to humans, but this serves as a reminder that wildlife can lose everything, too.”

2 Mud-rolling mud-dauber wasps, right - rolling mud, left - flying with mud ball. Credit Georgina Steytler/WPY 2018

Credit: Georgina Steytler/WPY 2018

Creepy collectors

Ffion Cleverly (Media editor): “After collecting mud balls, these female mud-dauber wasps carve out chambers inside for their eggs. They also deposit paralysed spiders as a tasty first meal and then seal the chambers up. How amazing and absolutely terrifying. This stunning, crystal-clear image was a worthy winner in the Behaviours Invertebrates category at the London Natural History Museum’s 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.”

Houses and trees are seen covered in thick ash

Credit: Ezra Acayan/NurPhoto/Getty

Ash apocalypse

Lizzy Brown (Media editor): “Following the eruption of Mount Mayon in the Philippines in January, the surrounding area was covered in ash, turning the environment dull grey. At first glance, it looks as though we are looking at a black-and-white image, but when you see the brightly coloured clothes of the small figure, the apocalyptic nature of the scene becomes clear."

An 11th century village and church, which are usually covered by water, are partially exposed in a reservoir in Spain

Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP/Shutterstock

Surreal reality

Tom Houghton (Media editor): “This photo of an eleventh-century church exposed by the depleted waters of a reservoir in Vilanova de Sau, Spain, immediately captured my attention. The illusion created by the moody clouds reflected in the static water reminds me of a dream-like surrealist painting. It’s the kind of image you end up staring at to understand.”

THE YEAR IN MOTION

Alongside amazing photography, our art editors came across some media that are best viewed in motion. Here are some of their favourite gifs from the past year.

When stimulated, this sea cucumber, Pannychia moseleyi, produces a frenzy of bioluminescent light over its epidermis.

Credit: S. Haddock/MBARI

Deep-sea magic

This sea cucumber should come with a ‘do not disturb’ sign. When stimulated, the creature’s (Pannychia moseleyi) skin produces a frenzy of bioluminescent light.

View from Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster which is now an artificial satellite of the Sun

Credit: SpaceX

Ultimate thrill-ride

In February, SpaceX’s chief Elon Musk sent his Tesla Roadster into orbit. The car served as the dummy payload on a test flight of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, and is now in orbit around the Sun.

The Rosetta spacecraft's camera recorded streaks of dust and ice particles from comet 67p

Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS/OSIRIS. Animation: Jacint Roger Perez

Comet snow flurry

Orbiting the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Rosetta spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera recorded these streaks as dust and ice particles drifted across its field of view. The gif, released in April, was constructed from consecutive images taken while Rosetta cruised some 13 kilometres from the comet’s nucleus.

Black and white looping video of a Skate Leucoraja hatchling walking on stubby legs. Filmed from underneath through a glass tank

Credit: Jung, Baek, Dasen et al./Cell (2018).

Strutting skate

This skate hatchling (Leucoraja erinacea) — seen from below — is ‘walking’. Researchers reported in February1 that the species has the underlying neural circuitry for two-legged walking. The finding suggests that the circuits evolved through adaptation of a genetic network shared by all vertebrates with paired limbs.

Nature 564, 318-323 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07684-4

References

  1. 1.

    Jung, H. et al. Cell 172, 667–682 (2018).

Download references

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.