2019 will be remembered as the year humanity captured the first-ever image of a black hole. The year also brought fresh views of some of Earth’s smallest living creatures and ominous signs of its changing climate. Here are the most striking shots from science and the natural world that caught the attention of Nature’s news team.
Go with the flow
French researchers carved a labyrinth of microfluidic chambers in a silicon wafer to mimic blood flows in circulatory networks. Biophysicist Benoît Charlot at the University of Montpellier, France, captured this image using a scanning electron microscope.
Each tiny dot in this circle represents one of around 100,000 cells from rhesus macaque monkeys. Cells with similar traits cluster together, and each colour represents different tissues such as the thymus and lymph nodes (blue) and bone marrow (red).
Stentors — or trumpet animalcules — are a group of single-celled freshwater protozoa. This image won second prize in the 2019 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition, and was captured at 40 times magnification by researcher Igor Siwanowicz at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.
On thin ice
This aerial view of the sea ice in East Greenland was captured by photographer Florian Ledoux using a drone. Low levels of winter snow cover, heatwaves in the spring and a sunny summer all contributed to significant melting of Greenland’s ice sheet in 2019.
Astronaut Christina Koch took this picture of the Soyuz spacecraft carrying her NASA colleague Jessica Meir as it approached the International Space Station (ISS). On 18 October, the pair performed history’s first all-female spacewalk, to repair a faulty battery unit on the ISS.
Out of its shell
This fluorescent visualization of a turtle embryo was the winner of the 2019 Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. Microscopists Teresa Zgoda and Teresa Kugler stitched together and stacked hundreds of stereomicroscope images of the roughly 2.5-centimetre-long embryo.
This false-colour image shows shockwaves emanating from supersonic US T-38 Talon aircraft, and was captured by NASA staff using an experimental technique from an aeroplane above. It shows the rapid changes in air pressure that cause people to hear sonic booms. The data will help aeronautical engineers to design quieter supersonic planes.
Petronella Chigumbura is a member of the Akashinga, or ‘brave ones’, an all-female anti-poaching unit. They patrol Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Area in the Zambezi Valley, where elephant poaching is common.
A fish explores a bleached sea anemone in the Red Sea, off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Like corals, anemones form symbiotic relationships with algae that are disrupted when oceans get too warm, causing the anemone to expel the algae and become colourless.
This web-like microstructure is made of fats left behind after researchers evaporated a 1-microlitre drop of diluted bourbon whisky. The fats dissolve in higher-strength spirits — but turn a drink cloudy when water is added.
A PERSONAL VIEW OF THE NEWS
In compiling this year’s collection of stunning science photographs, Nature’s media and news editors identified an image that said something special to them. Here is their take on the past 12 months.
Jessica Hallett (Associate media editor). ‘Sleeping like a Weddell’ was my favourite image from this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, held by the Natural History Museum in London. After seeing thousands of heartbreaking images of climate change, destruction and devastation this year, discovering this picture of a Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) — an image that captured peace and innocence — was a breath of fresh air. It grounded me and reignited my passion for our natural world.
Lizzy Brown (Managing media editor). This amazing image of wild-honey hunters dangling precariously from a cliff edge, surrounded by bees and smoke, caught my eye this year. The harvesters, who live in southern China and belong to the Lisu ethnic group, risk their lives to collect the valuable honey from the hives of Apis dorsata bees. Although they are careful not to harvest too much honey at once, this traditional practice is threatened by falling bee populations, prompted by heavy pesticide use and global warming.
Nisha Gaind (Bureau chief, Europe). This X-ray shows a baby Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) with a fractured arm. Conservation workers rescued the animal, named Brenda, from a village on the Indonesian island where she had reportedly been kept illegally as a pet. As editors, we see lots of photographs of conservation, but this image struck me for many reasons: the ‘humanness’ of Brenda’s shape, her innocence and the dedication of the conservation centre, which flew in a surgeon to operate on the animal. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered and are threatened by the expansion of palm-oil plantations.
Tree of fire
Tom Houghton (Media editor). This long-exposure photograph traces the shower of embers from a skeletal tree ravaged during wildfires that raged throughout California in October. The visual effect gives the destruction an abstract beauty, which reminds me of the incredible photos of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano wreathed in lightning when it erupted in 2010.
Amelia Hennighausen (US Media editor). When wildlife is taken into captivity, the outcome is often grim. These beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and killer whales, discovered by drone footage in Russia in 2018, were intended to be sold to entertainment aquariums in China, where their natural lifespans would probably have been shortened. The images prompted an international call for the animals to be released, and garnered attention from the highest levels of the Russian government. In November 2019, the last of the animals were freed from their ‘whale jails’ and released back into the sea after being examined by specialists. For years I’ve been viewing images of animal smuggling, habitat destruction and species extinction, but this story gave me hope that change can happen.
Agnese Abrusci (Media editor). This image of a frog on a lotus leaf in Lalitpur, Nepal, is a stunning example of the ‘lotus effect’. This refers to self-cleaning properties of lotus leaves, which result from their water-repellent properties. Particles of dirt — or, in this case, a whole frog — are caught by droplets, which bead as a result of the surface’s nanostructure. Scientists first described the lotus effect in the 1970s, and it has since been used in many applications. For me, the image illustrates that, once again, mimicking nature is one of humankind’s best strategies for progress.