It's that time of the year again: when the Natural History Museum of London gives us a sneak peek at some of the Highly Commended images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. From a mud-slathered hippo to a duo of foxes duelling over a meal, this year's crop of photos does not disappoint.

Eye of the drought
Highly Commended 2020, Animal Portraits
An eye blinks open in the mud pool as a hippopotamus emerges to take a breath–one every three to five minutes. The challenge for Jose, watching in his vehicle, was to catch the moment an eye opened. For several years, Jose has been watching hippos in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve –here in a remnant of the drought-stricken Mara River. Hippos spend the day submerged to keep their temperature constant and their sensitive skin out of the sun, and at night they emerge to graze on the floodplains. Throughout their sub-Saharan African range, hippos are vulnerable to the combined effects of increasing water extraction and climate change. They are vital grassland and aquatic ecosystem engineers, and their dung provides important nutrients for fish, algae and insects. But when rivers run dry, a concentration of dung depletes the oxygen and kills the aquatic life. Jose Fragozo/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The renowned competition – now in its fifty-sixth year – showcases the world's best nature photography and photojournalism, offering a global platform for amateur and professional photographers alike. Each year, a team of experienced judges sift through thousands of entries, selecting their top 100 images to be included in an exhibition that tours the globe. "Using photography's unique emotive power to engage and inspire audiences, the 100 images shine a light on stories and species around the world and encourage a future of advocating for the planet," the organisation wrote in a press release.

"All the commended images are effectively winners," says Roz Kidman Cox, Chair of the judging panel, adding that the Highly Commended images are selected from a pool of almost 50,000 entries. "The diversity of subjects and styles this year is memorable, with more than 25 different nationalities represented. But what especially stands out are the images from the young photographers – the next generation of image-makers passionate about the natural world."

Among the top 100 photos is an image of a critically endangered primate called a douc that was captured by thirteen-year-old Arshdeep Singh. The image will hopefully enlighten global audiences to the threats facing these rare animals and their endangered environment.

While the contest's top 100 will be put on display only in October, we've selected some of our favourite contenders to whet your appetite:

Wind birds
Highly Commended 2020, Behaviour: Birds
Blasted by the wind, high on the Alpstein Massif of the Swiss Alps, Alessandra could barely stand, but the yellow-billed choughs were in their element. These gregarious mountain birds nest in rocky ravines and on cliff faces, staying with their partners throughout the year. They feed mostly on insects in summer, and berries, seeds and human food waste in winter – boldly scavenging in flocks around ski resorts. They are constantly on the move looking for food, and as a scavenging flock drew closer, Alessandra could hear them shrieking ‘so loud and insistent in the dramatic landscape – it was like being in a thriller movie’. Taking advantage of gusts of wind sweeping the birds towards her and slowing their path, she captured their’ impressive acrobatics – one in characteristic headlong plunge–against the moody sky and jagged, snow-capped mountains. Red feet and yellow bills accent the monochrome of her atmospheric picture. Alessandra Meniconzi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The perfect catch
Highly Commended 2020, 15-17 Years Old
A brown bear pulls a salmon from the shallows of a river in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. The huge park contains Pacific coastline, mountains, lakes, rivers and an estimated 2,200 brown bears. In spring, when bears emerge from hibernation in their mountain dens, many of them head down to feed on sedges in open meadows and forage for clams on the mudflats. Then they feast on the vast numbers of nutrient-rich sockeye salmon that start arriving, gathering in the estuaries before heading upstream to spawn. Here, the bear has caught a sockeye still in its ocean form (before it has developed its reproductive red colour and pronounced jaws). The presence of the salmon through until autumn ensures the bears’ survival through the winter. Alaskan brown bears are among the world’s largest. Males may eat 30 salmon a day and weigh more than 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds) by the end of the summer. Females are smaller and typically weigh a third less. The greatest concentration of bears – and of tourists – is around the waterfall at Brooks River, where viewing platforms enable visitors to watch bears catching salmon leaping up the falls. Hannah chose to focus on a quieter scene and a different style of fishing. Instead of snatching at leaping fish or jumping on them, this female put her head under the water to look for one. Hannah had been watching for some time before she achieved the composition she wanted: a full reflection of the bear – and its catch – in still water. Hannah Vijayan/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Peeking possums
Highly Commended 2020, Urban Wildlife
Two common brushtail possums – a mother (left) and her joey – peek out of their hiding place under the roof of a shower block in a holiday park in Yallingup, Western Australia. Gary had watched them all week. They would popup at sunset, keep an eye on the campers till dark, then squeeze out through the gap and head for the trees to feed on the leaves of a peppermint tree. These small, adaptable marsupials (mammals with pouches) naturally occur in Australia’s forests and woodlands, taking shelter in tree hollows, but in more urban areas, they may use roof spaces. To get the right angle, Gary moved his car close to the building and climbed up. The curious possums – probably used to being fed by other campers – stuck their heads out and peered at the interesting man and his camera. He quickly framed their little faces beneath the corrugated iron roof, capturing a sense of their vulnerability, along with their resourcefulness. Gary Meredith/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The spider's supper
Highly Commended 2020, Behaviour: Invertebrates
A large wandering spider – black, hooked fangs tipping its bristly, striped mouth parts – pierces the egg of a giant glass frog, injects digestive juices and then sucks in its liquefied prey. Jaime had walked for hours, in darkness and heavy rain, to reach the stream in Manduriacu Reserve, northwestern Ecuador, where he hoped to find glass frogs mating. But his reward turned out to be a chance to photograph a behaviour he had seldom seen – a wandering spider with an 8-centimetre (3-inch) leg span devouring the frogs’ eggs. The 11 known species of wandering spiders are thought to be key predators of these small, often translucent amphibians. They shelter in rainforest plants in the day and hunt at night, usually by ambushing prey that ventures close enough. Armed with sensitive bristles, the spider can detect vibrations transmitted through leaves and may also pick up sounds such as amphibians’ mating calls. Their battery of eight eyes, including two large ones on the side of the head, have differing functions and are highly sensitive to low light but are smaller than in spiders that actively pursue their prey. Jaime set up his shot to capture the precise moment the female spider grasped the thin jelly coating between her fangs, steadying the egg with her long, hairy palps. One by one – over more than an hour – she ate the eggs. Jaime Culebras/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Paired-up puffins
Highly Commended 2020, 11-14 Years Old
A pair of Atlantic puffins in vibrant breeding plumage pause near their nest burrow on the Farne Islands. Every spring, these small islands off Northumberland attract more than 100,000 breeding pairs of seabirds. While guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars crowd onto the cliffs, puffins nest in burrows on the grassy slopes above. When wintering at sea, their plumage is a dull black and grey, but by the time they return to breed, they are sporting black ‘eye liner’ and brightly coloured bill plates that have fused into an unmistakable beak–one which, to other puffins, also glows with UV light. Evie had longed to see a puffin, and when school broke up, she and her family managed two day trips to Staple Island in July, before the puffins returned to sea in August. She stayed by the puffins’ burrows, watching the adults returning with mouthfuls of sand eels. Puffins are long-lived and form long-term pairs, and Evie concentrated on this pair, aiming for a characterful portrait. Puffins worldwide are in decline, vulnerable to the effects of climate disruption, including more frequent storms and warmer water, which has reduced the availability of sand eels, their staple food. Evie Easterbook/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Head start
Highly Commended 2020, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles
Ever watchful, a large male gharial – at least 4 metres (13 feet) long – provides solid support for his numerous offspring. It is breeding season in the National Chambal Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh,northern India, and this usually shy reptile now exudes confidence. Its name comes from the bulbous growth at the tip of a mature male’s long thin snout (‘ghara’ is a round pot in Hindi), believed to be used to enhance sounds and underwater bubble displays made during breeding. Though numbers might have once exceeded 20,000,spread across South Asia, the past century saw drastic declines. The species is now critically endangered – an estimated 650 adults are left, about 500 of them living in the sanctuary. They are threatened mainly by the damming and diversion of rivers and extraction of sand from riverbanks where they nest, as well as the depletion of fish stocks and entanglement in nets. A male will mate with seven or more females, who nest close together, their hatchlings aggregating into one large crèche. This male was left in sole charge of his month-old offspring, observes Dhritiman, but both sexes are known to care for their young. So as not to disturb the gharials, he spent many days quietly watching from the riverbank. His picture encapsulates at once the tenderness of a protective father and its ‘don’t mess with my offspring’ attitude. Dhritiman Mukherjee/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Treetop douc
Highly Commended 2020, 11-14 Years Old
When his father planned a business trip to Vietnam, Arshdeep researched the wildlife online. It was after he read about the endangered red-shanked douc langur that he asked his father to take him along. The meeting was near Son Tra Nature Reserve, Vietnam’s last coastal rainforest and a stronghold for the langur. Found only in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the primate is threatened by habitat loss, hunting and trade. Douc langurs eat mostly leaves, seeds, flowers and fruit and live in the canopy – a challenge for a photographer. Arshdeep had just three days at Son Tra. The first was hot, and the doucs were in the shade. On the next day, his long wait was rewarded when a male appeared in a tree on the slope opposite. It was a struggle to hold his telephoto lens steady and shoot at an angle clear of leaves, and just for a second, the langur glanced at him – the moment Arshdeep had come to Vietnam for. Arshdeep Singh/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Amazon burning
Highly Commended 2020, Wildlife Photojournalism: Single Image
A fire burns out of control in Maranhão state, northeastern Brazil. A single tree remains standing – ‘a monument to human stupidity’, says Charlie, who has been covering deforestation in the Amazon for the past decade. The fire would have been started deliberately to clear a logged area of secondary forest for agriculture or cattle farming. In 2015, more than half the state’s primary forest was destroyed by fires started by illegal logging on indigenous land. Burning has continued in the state, exacerbated by drought, as land has been cleared, legally and illegally. In the past year, invasion of indigenous reserves and conservation areas by loggers and land-grabbing ranchers has increased, emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro’s commitment to open up the Amazon for business and his attacks on indigenous groups. The group most imperilled in the state are the Awá. Just a few hundred Awá remain ‘in a pocket of forest amid devastation’, says Charlie. Deforestation doesn’t just cause destruction of biodiversity and the loss of the livelihoods of the people who depend on it. Burning trees means losing their oxygen output and letting back into the atmosphere the carbon they have sequestered. Then cattle brought onto the cleared land add to the greenhouse gases. In 2020, there have been record levels of deforestation in the Amazon, with illegal loggers emboldened by a lack of law enforcement and with cattle ranching fuelled by the global demand for beef. Charlie Hamilton James/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The rat game
Highly Commended 2020, Behaviour: Mammals
With a determined stare, a young fox holds tight to her trophy – a dead brown rat – as her brother attempts to take it off her. For the past four years, Matthew has been photographing the foxes that live on a North London allotment. Like all foxes, they are opportunistic, taking advantage of all available food, whether human or pet food discarded or put out by fox-lovers, fruit, mice, voles, worms and other invertebrates, even bird food. On this August evening, as Matthew lay prone watching the youngsters at play, one of them exploded out of the bushes with a dead rat in its mouth. The other three then began squabbling over it and a tug-of-war developed. When one got the prize, it would repeatedly toss it into the air and catch it. The rat could have been provided by one of the adults – which continue to feed their young into August – but it is rare for foxes to catch rats. More likely, it had been found dead. With their long, narrow jaws and thin canines, foxes are designed to hunt small rodents in a ‘pounce and hold’ way. Young rats are possible prey – treated like mice and voles, tossed in the air and bitten to fracture the bones – but adult rats are formidable fighters, capable of inflicting serious injury to a fox’s face and eyes. If an adult rat is caught unawares, it will be held firm and shaken violently to maximise damage and avoid a counter-attack. Weak or dead rats, though, provide easy pickings, which makes foxes particularly vulnerable to poisoning by rodenticide. Matthew Maran/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Highly Commended 2020, Behaviour: Mammals
A red squirrel bounds away from its surprise discovery – a pair of Ural owls, very much awake. In forest near his village on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, Makoto had spent three hours, in freezing conditions, hiding behind a nearby tree hoping that the owl couple would pose or perform. Suddenly, a squirrel appeared from the treetops. ‘It was extraordinary to see them all in the same tree,’ says Makoto. Ural owls prey mainly on small mammals, including red squirrels. This one, with characteristic tufted ears, bushy tail and grey-tinged winter coat, is a subspecies of the Eurasian red squirrel endemic to Hokkaido (possibly threatened by the introduction of mainland red squirrels, originally as pets). Rather than fleeing, the curious squirrel approached and peered into the owls’ hole, first from the top, then from the side. ‘I thought it was going to be caught right in front of me,’ says Makoto, ‘but the owls just stared back.’ The curious squirrel, as if suddenly realising its mistake, leapt onto the nearest branch and sped away into the forest. With equally quick reactions, Makoto managed to frame the whole story – the squirrel’s escape, the owls’ expression and a soft hint of the wintry forest landscape. Makoto Ando/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The night shift
Highly Commended 2020, Under Water
As darkness falls on the remote coral Fakarava Atoll, in French Polynesia, the molluscs begin to move. These large topshells – reaching 15 centimetres (6 inches) across the base – spend the day hiding in crevices among corals, usually on the outer fringes of the reef, withstanding the strong currents and surf. At night, they emerge to graze on algal pavements and coral rubble. Their thick, cone-shaped shells, shown encrusted with algae, were so sought after – to make mother-of-pearl buttons, jewellery and other handicrafts – that the species was once the world’s most traded invertebrate. This led to its widespread decline, and it is now the focus of conservation efforts. Cruising behind these slow grazers is one of the reef’s top predators – a grey reef shark, nearly 2 metres (6½ feet) long – capable of speeds of nearly 50 kilometres (30 miles) per hour and ready for a night’s hunting. It pinpoints prey (mostly bony reef fish) with its acute senses and often hunts in packs. Using a wide angle, Laurent framed the night life stirring beneath the reflections of the reef, contrasting the close-up, angular topshells with the sleek predator behind. Laurent Ballesta/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Memorial to the albatrosses
Highly Commended 2020, Wildlife Photojournalism: Single Image
Unlikely as it seems, this display illustrates a South African conservation success story. It represents the comparatively smaller number of deaths of seabirds – hereshy albatrosses and a yellow-nosed albatross (a longline hook still in its bill) and white‑chinned petrels – caught in 2017 on longlines set by Japanese tuna-fishing boats off South Africa’s coast. A boat’s main line can extend for more than 80 kilometres (50 miles), with thousands of baited hooks. When small seabirds dive down and bring the baited hooks to the surface, petrels and albatrosses try to swipe their catches whole, hook themselves and drown. In recent years, more seabird‑friendly fishing practices – setting lines after dark, using weighted hooks that sink more quickly, dragging bird-scaring lines – have dramatically reduced the annual bird bycatch off South Africa, now numbering in the hundreds instead of tens of thousands. But worldwide, every year, more than 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, are still killed elsewhere by longlines alone.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London
Header image © Jose Fragozo/Wildlife Photographer of the Year