The winners of the California Academy of Sciences' renowned BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition have been announced, and the gallery is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

The contest celebrates the best in wildlife and conservation photography from around the planet. The winning images, which feature some of nature's rarely seen phenomena, were selected from nearly 6,000 entires from 63 countries. 

As if to compete with the brilliance of the night sky, a towering termite mound puts on its own light show above the subdued landscape of Western Brazil. This effect is produced by one of the mound’s residents: larvae of the Brazilian click beetle (Pyrearinus termitilluminans). The larvae use their glow to attract winged termites which they’ll catch and eat. Image: Marcio Cabral/BigPicture 

In addition to highlighting "amazing creatures and gorgeous environments", many of the selected photographs aim to shed light on important conservation issues. This year's Grand Prize image, for example, features a pair of elephant feet-turned-foot-stools that were confiscated by US Fish and Wildlife and stored in a repository in Colorado.

"[The photograph] was taken by wildlife photographer Britta Jaschinski, whose work focuses on revealing otherwise untold stories about animal suffering," explains the team. "The captivating image represents just one example of the 1.3 million items seized each year – and the incredible toll materialistic desire takes on threatened wildlife populations."

These elephant feet-turned-footstools are among some 1.3 million confiscated wildlife products housed in a US Fish and Wildlife repository near Denver, Colorado. Despite bans on the international trade of products made from endangered species, such goods continue to find their way into illegal markets. Until recently, it was unknown whether these items were leaking out of repositories or coming from recent kills. To find out, researchers radiocarbon-dated 231 ivory samples seized between 2002 and 2014. They found that only one of the samples was old enough to have come from storage, which suggests that persistent poaching continues to be the primary source of ivory goods. Image: Grand Prize Winner, Britta Jaschinski/BigPicture
The remote Revillagigedo Islands off the west coast of Mexico are actually the four highest peaks of a mostly submerged volcanic mountain range. In the surrounding marine sanctuary, cool waters from the North Pacific mix with the warm Northern Equatorial Current. This nutrient-and plankton-rich convergence attracts a diverse array of sea life – and the protections mandated by the sanctuary help to sustain an unusually healthy marine ecosystem. In this photograph, more than a thousand top predators, including dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus), yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), and Galápagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) work in unison to round up a shared meal of chub and other baitfish. Image: Ralph Pace/BigPicture
To capture this view of a mother grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) and her cub, photographer Peter Mather set up a camera trap on a log that he knew the bears tended to traverse while fishing for salmon. Packed with both protein and fat, salmon provide grizzlies with a critical source of energy and nutrients during the spawning season. However, the fish can also carry high levels of environmental toxins, such as mercury, that put the bears at risk. Scientists have found that some 70 percent of grizzly bears sampled along the coast of British Columbia over the past decade contained mercury levels above what is considered safe. Image: Peter Mather/BigPicture
When temperatures drop, macaques often huddle together to pool their body heat, forming what’s known as a saru dango or "monkey dumpling". This behaviour is common among the 23 species of macaques, all of which form complex matriarchal societies. It is especially important for Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), which live in colder climates than any other primate, aside from humans. Image: Alexandre Bonnefoy/BigPicture
Surrounded by black volcanic sands, a peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus) stands guard over her ribbon-like mass of fertilised eggs. The folds of this portable, flexible structure – held together with an adhesive produced by the mother – provide ample surface area for gas exchange between the egg membranes and the surrounding environment. The female cleans and aerates the developing eggs with the same appendages she typically uses to handle prey. With her limbs more than full caring for her brood, the female won't eat until the eggs hatch and the larvae disperse. Image: Filippo Borghi/BigPicture
Since the 1960s, North American populations of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) have exploded an estimated thirteen-fold, in part because of the sprawling fields of grain that have cropped up along their migration route. In Canada, the species has been officially declared overabundant, largely due to its impact on sensitive Arctic habitats. Descending in vast flocks, the geese leave a wake of mowed-down plants and exposed ground that can take decades to recover. The results can be devastating for other species, such as the endangered rufa red knot (Calidris canutus rufa), that rely on this vegetation for foraging and nesting habitat. Image: Denise Ippolito/BigPicture
At the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center in China's Wolong Reserve, captive-bred giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) have been raised with the hope of one day reintroducing them to the wild. To prevent young pandas from imprinting on and becoming attached to their human caregivers, staff wear costumes that mimic the animals' characteristic black and white pattern. That pattern, which scientists have puzzled over for decades, is now thought to be an evolutionary compromise that allows pandas to blend into both snowy backgrounds in the winter and shadowy forests in the summer. Image: Ami Vitale/BigPicture
This past January, a steady stream of lava, called a firehose, suddenly gushed from an underground lava tube at the base of Hawai'i's Kilauea volcano and spilled into the Pacific Ocean. As the molten rock met the cooler seawater, steam, sand and chunks of cooled lava were thrown explosively into the air. The impact of these continual bursts of energy eventually created a crack in the 90-foot cliff, which expanded over the course of a week until a section of the cliff broke off entirely. Image: Jon Cornforth/BigPicture
Photographer Franco Banfi and his fellow divers were following this pod of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) when the giants suddenly seemed to fall into a vertical slumber. This phenomenon was first studied in 2008, when a team of biologists from the UK and Japan inadvertently drifted into a group of non-responsive sperm whales floating just below the surface. Baffled by the behaviour, the scientists analysed data from tagged whales and discovered that these massive marine mammals spend about seven percent of their time taking short rests in this shallow vertical position. Scientists think these brief naps may be the only time the whales sleep. Image: Franco Banfi/BigPicture
When farmers in West Bengal finish their harvest of wheat or rice, they often burn the straw and stubble that's left behind. It's a quick – if destructive and banned – way to clear the field and return some of the crop's nutrients to the soil in preparation for the next season's planting. The practice is also a boon to local birds. As insects flee the flames, birds like these black drongos (Dicrurus macrocercus) swoop in to take advantage of the bounty. Image: Kallol Mukherjee/BigPicture
These beauties may appear to be single-celled organisms viewed under a microscope, but you’re actually looking at a bucket filled with dozens of by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella). Each sailor – measuring up to three inches long – is a colony of individual polyps that feed on plankton, reproduce and defend the colony. These close relatives of jellyfish float on the surface of the ocean, their translucent triangular sails providing mobility. Image: Jodi Frediani/BigPicture

The California Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, will put the 48 top images on display beginning July 28. 

See more winning images on bioGraphic, an online magazine about science and sustainability, and the official media sponsor for the BigPicture competition. 


Top header image: Alexandre Bonnefoy/BigPicture