These are our best animal photos of 2020

Honeybees slurp water and chimps stalk a Ugandan village in these striking pictures selected by National Geographic editors.

Photograph by Mélanie Wenger, National Geographic
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A sedated zebra is lifted by a helicopter at a Texas ranch called Sexy Whitetails, near San Angelo. The zebra is one of approximately a million exotic animals that populate ranches across the state. The animals are frequently bought, sold, and traded among ranches. Many are available for hunters to kill, for hefty prices.

(From “A behind-the-scenes look at Texas’ exotic animal ranches,” July 2020.)

Photograph by Mélanie Wenger, National Geographic

The photo shows insects crawling across a white sheet in the Arizona wilderness. It’s nighttime and the sheet is illuminated with light, attracting critters that populate the Chiricahua Mountains—green stink bugs, sphinx moths, and others. To most of us, the photo appears to capture a menagerie of life. To scientists, it represents loss: Years ago in these mountains, you’d find many more species of insects, and rarer ones, crawling across the sheet. They’re gone now.

The photograph, by David Liittschwager, is a snapshot of a mass insect decline that’s reverberating across the globe. National Geographic photo editors chose it as one of our 26 best animal photos of the year.

Many of the chosen photos feature species that aren’t commonly seen, like some of Liittschwager’s insects, says photo editor Ally Moreo, who curated the list. Illuminating little-known stories about animals “can help us, as humans, better coexist with them and understand that our actions can impact them in positive and negative ways,” she says.

Many of the photographs reflect how people devote their lives to helping animals. One of those is Karine Aigner’s image of harpy eagles. Large and highly endangered, the birds have new hope for survival with an innovative conservation program in the Amazon.

Doug Gimesy’s photograph shows flying foxes in Melbourne, Australia, baking to death in a clump on a tree in an extreme heatwave last December. Thousands of foxes died that day—but Gimesy also documented rescuers who worked in extreme heat to save hundreds more of the animals.

Other photographs chosen this year shed light on the complex and often controversial relationships between humans and captive animals. Mélanie Wegner documented the massive exotic wildlife industry in Texas: More than a million exotic animals, including oryxes and zebras, are bred, transported, and hunted for large sums of money at ranches across the state. Daniel Rolider documented carriage horses and their drivers in New York City; Greg Kahn photographed chimpanzees at a controversial Georgia sanctuary.

Though most of these photos were captured before the COVID-19 pandemic, some were made during the past several months—in controlled environments, or safely from afar. (A lot of wildlife photography is “naturally socially distanced,” Moreo says.)

The pandemic affected the ability of many National Geographic photographers to travel into the field this year. That encouraged Jasper Doest to find a new wildlife photo project on his own doorstep while quarantined at home in the Netherlands. He turned his lens on a pair of pigeons that first started frequenting his family’s balcony—then ventured further into their home, to their living room couch, and even to his kids’ dollhouse.


Doest, whose photographs of performing Japanese snow monkeys and of a rescued flamingo named Bob are also featured in this selection, named the pigeons Ollie and Dollie. Their daily visits became a reminder of the reality that “we are not alone on this planet,” he writes. “And we need to share it with all living beings as if our lives depend on it.”

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After patrons in Kayabuki Tavern, in Utsonomiya, Japan, have finished eating, the owners’ pet monkeys climb onto a makeshift stage at the back of the restaurant and obediently model a collection of papier-mâché masks. Considered messengers of the gods, many macaques are now trained to wear costumes, do backflips, and walk on stilts to please crowds.

(From “Circus-like performances by snow monkeys in Japan contradict their long-revered status,” March 2020.)

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Brown bears fish for salmon at Alaska’s McNeil Falls, home to one of the largest seasonal congregations of bears on Earth. As many as 80 have been seen at one time in this spot. The bears are used to small groups of tourists, who come to the area to watch them. A proposed mine in the region would threaten the bears’ migration corridor.

(From “Alaska is the best place to see wild bears. A new mine could change that.” January 2020.)

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A swarm of locusts descends on acacia trees in northern Kenya in April. Swarms can swell to 70 billion insects—enough to cover New York City 1.5 times—and to decimate 300 million pounds of crops in a single day.

(From “Gigantic new locust swarms hit East Africa,” May 2020.)

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A South American sea lion swims off Isla de los Estados, in the Argentine portion of Tierra del Fuego. The Pristine Seas project, spearheaded by the National Geographic Society, aims to protect one third of the world’s ocean.

(From “Inside the ambitious push to protect a third of the world’s ocean,” September 2020.)

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Maine pioneered dam removal to restore salmon runs. Now millions of fish, among them alewives—a kind of river herring about 10 inches long— are swimming upriver again to spawn in Highland Lake, near Portland, Maine.

(From “If you unbuild it, they will come—the fish, that is,” August 2020.)

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With tubular tongues, western honeybees in Langen, Germany, slurp up water to carry back to their nest. They’ll pass it to another group of bees, who will help it evaporate in a special process to keep the nest cool.

(From “Photos from inside a tree reveal intimate lives of wild honeybees,” March 2020.)

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A light-flooded sheet in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains is dominated by large white-lined sphinx moths and green stink bugs. Ecologist Lee Dyer, who monitors insect populations, says that in years past, this trap captured many more and rarer insects.

(From “Where have all the insects gone?,” May 2020.)

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Racing greyhounds roam at a kennel in Florida. Though generally gentle and non-aggressive, the dogs often wear muzzles around each other because they have thin skin and can get competitive, having been trained to race after the same lure. Floridians voted in 2018 to ban betting greyhound racing by the end of 2020, effectively ending the industry. Critics of the sport contend that dog racing is cruel and inhumane, but those in the industry mourn the loss of what they say is a cultural institution.

(From “The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end,” October 2020.)

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Around some villages in western Uganda, small groups of chimpanzees must survive in remnant strips and patches of forest. Deprived of wild foods, the chimps emerge to raid crops and cultivated fruit trees, competing desperately with people for sustenance, space, and survival. In July 2014, a large chimp snatched and killed a toddler outside his family home, seen here, in Kyamajaka village. Over time, the chimps returned to loom menacingly around the house, posing a threat to the other children.

(From “‘I am scared all the time’: Chimps and people are clashing in rural Uganda,” August 2020.)

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Merel Doest ducks for cover after Dollie, a pigeon, flew past her on her family’s balcony in the Netherlands. Merel’s dad Jasper started photographing Dollie and her companion Ollie while quarantined at home in March. The pigeons soon became bold enough to start exploring the family’s apartment—perching on their dishes and living room couch.

(From “The tale of Ollie and Dollie, a pair of pigeons that befriended a family on lockdown,” May 2020.)

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Bob, a flamingo, takes a nighttime swim in the saltwater pool behind his rescuer Odette Doest’s house, in Curaçao. After crashing into a hotel window in 2016, which gave him a concussion and injured his left wing, he was unable to return to the wild. He’s among the 90-some animals at Doest’s sanctuary and has become a symbol of conservation—Doest brings him to visit schools as a way to educate children about protecting wildlife.

(From “Meet Flamingo Bob, the poster bird for conservation,” January 2020.)

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Fireflies known as “snappy syncs” illuminate the bottomlands of South Carolina’s Congaree National Park in May each year, creating a pulsing display with their rapid-fire, coordinated flashes. David Shelley, biologist at the park, considers the creatures “charismatic micro-fauna” that serve as a reminder of the importance of insects.

(From “A rare look at fireflies that blink in unison, in a forest without tourists,” June 2020.)

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A sedated Arabian oryx in a trailer at 777 Ranch in Texas awaits transport to another facility. Extinct in the wild, Arabian oryxes are bred, bought, and sold on many Texas ranches. Michael Rann, the nephew of the ranch’s owner, cares for the ranch’s 6,000 animals. Even though Rann says he realizes that hunting fees are the ranch’s primary source of income, losing animals to hunters can be painful. “I wish that the animals I raised weren’t shot,” he says. “But it is what it is. I know what I signed up for.”

(From “A behind-the-scenes look at Texas’ exotic animal ranches,” July 2020.)

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A harpy eagle provides a freshly killed armadillo as a meal for its hungry chick in the Brazilian Amazon. Since the 1800s, their range across Central and South America has declined by more than 40 percent. Scientists are monitoring this nest and others as part of an effort to protect harpy eagles in areas most vulnerable to deforestation.

(From “The heroic effort in the Amazon to save one of the world’s largest eagles,” April 2020.)

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On a leaf at La Selva Research Station in Costa Rica, parasitic wasps in the pupal stage, between larva and adult, cluster on the dying caterpillar that nourished them—and whose population they keep in check. “Declines in parasitic wasps are catastrophic for any terrestrial ecosystem,” ecologist Lee Dyer says. The site has lost many species of both kinds of organisms.

(From “Where have all the insects gone?,” May 2020.)

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Before she leaves to hunt at sea for two months, a female emperor penguin assists her partner in transferring her egg onto his feet. The delicate routine must be quick or the egg might freeze. The flightless birds depend on Antarctica’s frozen sea ice shelves to find mates, breed, and raise chicks. But as temperatures rise, the shelves are vanishing.

(From “As ice melts, emperor penguins march toward extinction,” May 2020.)

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A camera trap catches an old male snow leopard on a mountain overlooking the Spiti Valley in the Himalayas. Photographer Prasenjeet Yadav observed this cat for two years before its death in March, when it chased an ibex off a cliff.

(From “Himalaya ‘ghost cats’ are finally coming into view,” July 2020.)

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A Magellanic penguin appears unperturbed by a passing herd of guanacos in the Punta Tombo reserve on Argentina’s Atlantic coast. The Tompkins Conservation group, owned by a wealthy couple, is working to buy millions of acres of land across Chile and Argentina, then donate them to create new parks.

(From “How an unprecedented gift built a legacy of conservation in South America,” April 2020.)

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A bison wallows in dust on the American Prairie Reserve, a conservation project aiming to create an immense protected area in central Montana. Bison were driven to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Their reintroduction is a critical—and controversial—part of the reserve’s plan to rewild a large swath of the northern plains, removing cattle, reestablishing native vegetation, and helping lost wildlife return and thrive.

(From “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains,” January 2020.)

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Flicking its tongue, a bush viper sniffs its surroundings. Venomous snakes kill some 30,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa each year, but many deaths go unrecorded. The real number may be double that.

(From “Snakebites kill tens of thousands of Africans a year,” May 2020.)

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At an ostrich farm in Germany, a chick takes shelter between a parent’s massive feet. In the 18th century ostrich feathers became so fashionable in Europe that intense hunting caused the birds to decline over much of their range. Domesticated in South Africa in the 1860s, they’re now farmed worldwide for their feathers, meat, and leather.

(From “They may look goofy, but ostriches are nobody’s fool,” August 2020.)

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A retired lab chimp reaches for treats in stacked cups attached to the outside of an enclosure at Project Chimps, one of the newest and largest chimpanzee sanctuaries in the U.S. The Georgia sanctuary has taken in 80 chimps since its opening in 2014, but more than 20 former staffers and volunteers told National Geographic that Project Chimps is plagued by problems.

(From “Sanctuary for retired lab chimps embroiled in dispute over quality of its care,” July 2020.)

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A juvenile trevally and a jellyfish mingle in the deep sea off the Philippines coastline. Photographers David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes captured this photograph while blackwater diving—scuba diving in the deep sea at night. Doubilet and Hayes liken swimming in the night sea to drifting in space. “The only way to know which way is up is to watch which direction the bubbles are going,” Doubilet says.

(From “Meet the creatures of the night sea,” July 2020.)

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Dozens of panting, suffocating gray-headed flying foxes clump together in an attempt to survive 110-degree heat in Yarra Bend Park, outside of Melbourne, in late December 2019. Some 4,500 foxes, including many of these seen here, died over three days in the park.

(From “Flying foxes are dying en masse in Australia’s extreme heat,” January 2020.)

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A carriage horse, one of about 200 in New York City, waits in Manhattan’s Clinton Park Stables with his owner, Ariel Fintzi. The historic industry has long been at the center of an intense debate over whether urban carriage-pulling is harmful to horses.

(From “The bitter controversy surrounding NYC’s carriage horse industry,” March 2020.)