Eerie image of parasitic ‘zombie’ fungus erupting from the body of a fly scoops top prize in ecology photo competition

  • The overall and category winners of the BMC Ecology and Evolution Image Competition have been revealed
  • A photo of a zombie fungus pushing through a host fly’s body taken by Roberto García-Roa won overall
  • Category winning photos depicted African elephants sheltering from the sun and treefrog embryos in eggs 
  • Other powerful images showed a researcher surrounded by frogs and a lizard breathing through a bubble

Images of lounging elephants, treefrog embryos and a parasitic fungus erupting from the body of a fly have all won prizes at an ecology photo competition.

The doomed fly was captured by evolutionary biologist Roberto García-Roa in the Tambopata National Reserve, Peru, and took the overall win at the second ever BMC Ecology and Evolution Image Competition.

The contest aims to showcase the wonder of the natural world and emphasise the growing need to protect it from human activity.

Mr García-Roa, from the University of Valencia, Spain, said: ‘The image depicts a conquest that has been shaped by thousands of years of evolution. 

‘The spores of the so-called ‘zombie’ fungus have infiltrated the exoskeleton and mind of the fly and compelled it to migrate to a location that is more favourable for the fungus’s growth. 

‘The fruiting bodies have then erupted from the fly’s body and will be jettisoned in order to infect more victims.’

Individual winners and runners-up were also announced in four categories; Relationships in Nature, Biodiversity Under Threat, Life Close Up and Research in Action. 

Overall winner: The fruiting body of a parasitic ‘zombie’ fungus erupts from the body of a host fly. ‘It illustrates both life and death simultaneously as the death of the fly gives life to the fungus,’ said Senior Editorial Board Member Christy Anna Hipsley

Relationships in Nature category winner: A Bohemian waxwing feasts on fermented rowan berries. The waxwings migrate depending on the presence of the berries, and have evolved larger livers in order to process the ethanol they produce

Senior Editorial Board Member Christy Anna Hipsley recommended the overall winning entry, and said: ‘Roberto García-Roa’s striking image is like something out of science fiction. 

‘It illustrates both life and death simultaneously as the death of the fly gives life to the fungus.’

An image of a Bohemian Waxwing feasting on fermented rowan berries took first place in the Relationships in Nature category, as it emphasised the strong influence the fruit has on the bird.

The waxwings migrate depending on the presence of the berries, and they can eat several hundred per day so have evolved larger livers in order to process the ethanol produced by them fermenting.

It was taken by ecologist and nature photographer Alwin Hardenbol from the University of Eastern Finland.

Senior Editorial Board Member Luke Jacobus said: ‘This image evokes an immediate response from the viewer by clearly communicating action, reaction and interaction. 

‘The contrasting colours and carefully crafted composition capture a fleeting moment in which the waxwing seems to respond to the viewer.’

Biodiversity Under Threat category winner: A group of African elephants shelter from the sun under a baobab tree

The Biodiversity Under Threat category winner was captured by Samantha Kreling from the University of Washington, USA.

Her image shows African elephants sheltering from the sun under a large baobab tree in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa as droughts strike.

Ms Kreling said: ‘Baobab trees can live for more than 2,000 years and store water in their barrel-like trunks when water is scarce. 

‘The tree in this image has had its bark stripped by elephants seeking water. 

‘Although these trees are usually fast-healing, this damage is more than baobab trees can cope with as temperatures rise due to climate change. 

‘This photograph highlights the need for action to prevent the permanent loss of these iconic trees.’

Life Close Up category winner: Gliding treefrog siblings at an early developmental stage in their eggs

BMC Ecology and Evolution Image Competition winners 

Overall winner: Roberto García-Roa – Fungus erupting from a fly

Relationships in Nature: Alwin Hardenbol – Bohemian waxwing feasting on berries

Biodiversity Under Threat: Samantha Kreling – African elephants sheltering under tree

Life Close Up: Brandon André Güell – Gliding treefrog embryos

Research in Action: Jeferson Ribeiro Amaral – Researchers working during a storm in Brazil


Taking the top spot in the Life Close Up category was an image of gliding treefrog embryos developing within their eggs in the Osa Penninsula, Costa Rica

It was taken by Brandon André Güell from Boston University, USA, who said: ‘The eggs in this image are among those laid by thousands of gliding treefrogs during an explosive breeding event triggered by a torrential rainstorm. 

If undisturbed, these eggs will hatch after six days of development, however the embryos can hatch early in order to escape threats such as predators and flooding.’

The Research in Action category winner was taken by Jeferson Ribeiro Amaral from Cornell University, USA and features two researchers from the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

The researchers are performing fieldwork in the middle of a storm and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are investigating whether isolated trees can help increase the abundance of frogs in the area and improve the circulation of nutrients within ponds.

Amphibians are in decline in Brazil due to disease and habitat loss, while agricultural land use disrupts the nutrient balance.

The photographer said: ‘The researchers in this image are representative of so many others who carried on working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

‘This image demonstrates their strength and dedication to understanding our world as they carry out their work despite thunderstorms and a global pandemic.’

Research in Action category winner: Researchers in Brazil perform fieldwork during thunderstorms in the COVID pandemic

Relationships in Nature category runner-up: A bat locates its dinner by tuning into a frog’s mating call

Runners-up in each category were also announced, with a photo of a fringe-lipped bat engorging on a wiggling tungara frog coming second place for Relationships in Nature.

Photographer and behavioural biologist Alexander T. Baugh said: ‘This image illustrates how natural and sexual selection can be at odds.’

The bats are specialised to hunt frogs, as their hearing is adapted to their low frequency mating calls and their salivary glands neutralise the toxins in the prey’s poisonous skin.

For the Biodiversity Under Threat category, the runner-up was Lindsey Swierk, an Assistant Research Professor at Binghamton University, USA.

She took a photo of wood frog clinging to an egg mass while submerged in a frozen pond. 

She said: ‘Wood frogs are early spring breeders in temperate North America and congregate in vernal pools soon after the ice melts to mate and produce egg masses. 

‘Lately, wood frogs are breeding earlier in the year as climate change unseasonably warms early spring in the Northeastern USA. 

‘Unfortunately, winter storms can still catch frogs unexpectedly and trap them under the ice.’ 

Biodiversity Under Threat category runner-up: A male wood frog clings to an egg mass as its pond freezes over

Life Close Up category runner-up: An anole lizard dives using a bubble balanced on its snout to breathe underwater

Research in Action category runner-up: Researcher Brandon André Güell amidst thousands of reproducing gliding treefrogs

Ms Swierk also was runner-up in the Life Close Up category, with an image of an anole lizard diving underwater while breathing into a bubble of air that clings to its snout.

‘They can spend almost 20 min underwater,’ she said.

‘Oxygen from this bubble is depleted over the underwater dive, which likely helps water anoles remain underwater for so long.’

The final second place photographer was Brandon A. Güell in the Research in Action category, who took an image of himself amidst thousands of gliding treefrogs and their eggs balanced on palm fronds.

He said: ‘Gliding treefrogs are of particular scientific and personal interest because of their understudied arboreal explosive breeding strategy and the diverse behaviours that may affect adult reproductive success. 

‘Moreover, hatching in gliding treefrogs is an excellent example of adaptive plasticity and environmentally-cued hatching; embryos can hatch prematurely to escape predators, flooding, desiccation, and other egg threats.’

The photography competition was created to give ecologists and evolutionary biologists the opportunity to use their creativity to celebrate their research and the combination of art and science.

Highly commended entry: Researchers monitor Bermuda petrel eggs in this photo taken by Letizia Campioni

Highly commended entry:  Julian Schrader captured bioluminescent fungi in the Bornean rainforest

Highly commended entry: Marine Cusa took a photo of a poor seabird’s stomach that was full of plastic waste

Six of the world’s smallest FROGS are discovered in Mexico Zombie fly fungus ‘bewitches’ males to mate with female corpses that have been dead for a day

A fungus that turns houseflies into zombies ensures its survival by ‘bewitching’ males into mating with the fungal-infected corpses of dead females – and a new study finds the longer the female is dead, the more alluring it is to the male.

The fungus, formally known as entomophthora muscae, infects a female fly, slowly eats it alive from the inside and then in about a week, the spores take over the behaviour of the now dead insect.

And once it has full control, the fungus releases a chemical signature that acts as pheromones to lure unsuspecting males.

As the male copulates with the infected female corpse, the fungal spores attach to the male, which in turn also becomes a zombie housefly.

Read more here 


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