In the race to the photo finish, an amphibian hopped to the lead with a reptile nipping at its heels and a couple of mammals running just behind. In actuality, an ice cave scene edged out the mammals but that didn’t make for as fun of an introduction. Honorable mentions go to a bird, a fungus and the aforementioned mammals. Only in EEB’s Photographer at Large Contest would you see these kinds of results.
A frog captured the top prize for the second year in a row. John David Curlis won first place with “King of the Mountain: The Exquisite Spike-thumb Frog (Plectrohyla exquisita),” Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Curlis also took second place with “A Very Happy or Very Angry Parrotsnake (Leptophis ahaetula),” Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Rumaan Malhotra captured third with “Winter study break,” Upper Peninsula, Mich.
Honorable mentions go to: Molly Hirst for “Motherly affection in the Mara,” Maasai Mara, Kenya and “Monkeying around with Vervets,” Mombasa, Kenya; Curlis (seeing a pattern here) scored in this category with “Lesson's Motmot (Momotus lessonii) on a Heliconia Plant,” San Luis de Monteverde, Costa Rica; Robert Powers for “Mycelium of the Mushroom Coprinellus radians,” Ann Arbor, Mich.
“When taking this photo, I was really hoping to try to capture the ‘personality’ of this species,” Curlis said about King of the Mountain. “Big tree frogs like this one are always a treat to photograph because they’re a bit clumsy, usually sit still for the camera, and often appear to be smiling (not to mention this one in particular looks a bit like Yoda from Star Wars).
“The exquisite spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla exquisita) is a critically endangered species found only in northwestern Honduras. Males have a protuberance or spike (called a prepollex) just below their thumb, and it is thought that this helps them better grasp females during mating or that it is used in aggressive interactions between males. Unfortunately, this charismatic species has severely declined in numbers due to deforestation and disease (especially chytridiomycosis); however, it is being closely monitored by the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center, which is currently working on establishing ex-situ populations for breeding and reintroduction.
Cusuco National Park in Honduras is “a beautiful, high-elevation cloud forest with a staggering amount of biodiversity, much of which is found nowhere else on earth. I was there conducting reptile and amphibian surveys with Operation Wallacea, and after this photo was taken, we weighed, measured and swabbed this individual (to test for disease) before releasing it. Although most of the time we found this species at night, this individual was out during the day, hanging out by a fast-flowing stream and waterfall.”
In his parrot snake photo, Curlis “wanted to capture the feistiness of this species. Parrot snakes are known for being a bit irritable when caught, often striking or biting, producing foul-smelling musk, and displaying defensive postures. The individual in the photo had done all three and is shown ‘gaping’ in an attempt to look intimidating. I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with this snake if I were a predator! Despite the fact that I was actually not a predator looking to eat this snake, but rather a harmless scientist wanting to photograph it, measure it, and obtain a tissue sample, it did manage to get a few strikes in on me and the other researchers before being released. Because of this, I like to think that this snake is actually smiling at its success in this photo.
“Parrot snakes (Leptophis ahaetulla) are generally fairly slender but can get to be quite long (six feet or more). They are extremely fast and have very good eyesight, so they usually try to flee when encountered in the forest. However, they do possess small fangs that are located towards the back of the mouth, which they can use to deliver a mild venom. This can cause a pins-and-needles or bee-sting-like effect in humans, but because the snakes are rear-fanged, envenomation usually only occurs if the snake is able to maneuver itself and chew for a while.
“While surveying for reptiles and amphibians, we came across this individual, who was basking in a sunspot. Being an ectotherm that had just sat in the sun for who knows how long, this snake was ready to flee. It shot up a tree, and my colleague (who I must say is more daring than I am) climbed up after it. Although he almost got bit in the face, he managed to get it down, and we were able to get all the data we needed before releasing it back where we found it. Sometimes you have to take some risks for good science (or have a friend to do it for you)!”
“I just love the pale blue of ice,” Malhotra said of his icy landscape shot. “I've seen it before in many photos, but Michigan is really the first place I have been able to go out and look for it myself. It was midwinter, I was a feeling a little burnt out, and so I did a solo outing with my camera.”
He’d seen (and photographed) the aurora the night before, when he was rappelling some of the ice falls over Lake Superior. Around 4:30 a.m., he got a little more sleep before waking to look for ice to photograph and scout for ice climbing.
“The UP has some of the best quality and abundance of climbable ice in the world. Pretty unusual for an area with no mountains nearby. Even if you aren't there for the climbing, it's definitely worth hiking along the lakeshore to see the amazing formations, which are a lovely contrasting mix of pale blue and orange.” He speculates the coloration may be from the same mineral seeps that paint the rocks. “If you get a few miles out, you will be completely alone, which is pretty great.”
It was a sunny February day in the 20s. A bit of melt cleared snow off the ice, making it slick. Tired from the night before, he forgot his traction footwear in the car, so climbing into the caves was a bit of a challenge. “It made for some good fun sliding around on my belly like a seal on the cave floors though.”
Regarding her lions photo, Hirst said “My safari group encountered several lions while in the Maasai Mara. We were able to get extremely close to the lions and watch them hunt twice. This photo was taken while a pride was hunting one evening. The older cub in the photo seemed to want to play with his mother more than join the hunt. I felt a sort of awe while taking these photos – not only because we were able to get so close but because of the endearing affection that I was capturing between a mother and her offspring. During my time at the Mara, the Great Migration was in full swing. One of the hunts that we witnessed was right next to a river that the wildebeest and zebra cross during the Great Migration. In the river below were at least two crocodiles and over twenty hippos. It was surreal seeing how many obstacles these ungulates (hoofed mammals) face in just that minuscule spatiotemporal instant.”
“It was a beautifully sunny, hot and humid day this past summer while I was at a park on the outskirts of Mombasa birding and spending time with a large troop of wild vervet monkeys,” Hirst described. “I followed the troop for several hours and took hundreds of photos of various individuals. When I took this photo, I was trying to capture an identifiable image of a water thick-knee (a bird) when I noticed this particular individual directly above me in a tree. It seems I was not the only primate pursuing other primates that day. This individual followed me for a short time after, but was eventually frightened away by a large group of passersby. The entire time I was with the troop, with each photo that I took, and each interaction I had, I couldn’t help but feel like the luckiest person in the world to be there in that moment and experience a day in the life of these incredible primates. An interesting tidbit about vervets is that they are some of the only animals that exhibit spitefulness, i.e. if one individual is upset with another, it may steal its food and destroy it, rather than eating it itself.
Curlis, who shot the photo of the colorful bird, said, “For me, this photo represents being in the right place at the right time. This Lesson’s Motmot is a very common species in many parts of Central America, and it was one that I never got tired of seeing. Where I was living in Costa Rica, we often joked that it was our rarest-looking common bird. Towards the end of my time there I had this beautiful brightly-colored motmot come sit on a beautiful brightly-colored plant (in the genus Heliconia) and just stare at me. As someone who loves colorful photos, I honestly couldn’t ask for a better combination of colors that just happened to occur while I happened to be walking around with my camera.
“Lesson’s Motmots (Momotus lessonii) are sit-and-wait predators that ambush large insects and small vertebrates as they pass by. They have serrated bills that keep prey from escaping, and they will often subdue the prey by beating it against their perch or the ground (which is kind of intense). They also have very long, racquet-tipped tails, which they swing back and forth like a pendulum when a predator is around. Some scientists think this may be a way of letting predators know that the motmot sees them and is ready to escape, so there is no point in pursuing.
“This photo was taken on the University of Georgia’s Costa Rica campus in San Luis, Costa Rica. I took this photo on a sunny day at the border between a patch of forest and an open field in the middle of the UGA campus.
Powers took his photo using an Axio vision microscope/camera at a magnification of approximately 400x in the lab of Professor Timothy James in the Kraus Natural Science Building. “At the time, I was looking for evidence that the fungus had mated, and was struck by how beautiful the mycelium looked.
“The mushroom that grows from this mycelium is often found growing in human habitats, popping up in old damp basements and has even been known to grow from the carpets of old cars!”
The 2018 11th annual contest was held in memory of David Bay, the department’s self-proclaimed "photographer at large" for 34 years. His humor, good nature and expertise touched a multitude of lives. Bay died in February 2009. As winner, Curlis earns the honorary title, photographer at large. This year, over 100 EEB people voted on nearly 50 images.