Picture of a beluga whale underwater with a rock in its mouth.

These are our best animal photos of 2021

A rescued giraffe, a see-through frog, a paralyzed jellyfish: Out of thousands of images, National Geographic editors selected these 28 striking animal pictures.

Belugas are playful and curious. Off Somerset Island, in the Canadian Arctic, they may pick up rocks and offer them to each other, or flip kelp onto their heads and sashay about as if wearing tiaras or wigs. Nearly 2,000 belugas frolic here each summer, nursing their young, chattering in squeaks and whistles, and swimming about in shifting networks of companions and family. Beluga culture is rooted in lifelong social relationships, and scientists suspect they are among the many whale species that share cultural traditions, much as humans do. (From “The hidden world of whale culture,” April 2021.)
Photograph by Brian Skerry

The beluga calf, nestled amid its family, glides across the bottom of the rocky sea floor. Poking out of its mouth is a flat stone—a toy for passing around among the whales. Belugas, scientists believe, have complex social structures: They teach each other swimming routes; they use individual calls, possibly to broadcast their identities; they flit and flirt and frolic together, waggling their flukes and shimmying their bodies along the seafloor to exfoliate their skin; they engage in play. We’re only beginning to understand the depths of whale culture

Brian Skerry’s photograph of the playful young beluga is the first of its kind. It’s one of 28 images selected by National Geographic’s photo editors as our best animal photos of 2021.

This year, as the human world remained mired in pandemic-induced upheaval, the hidden worlds of wild animals carried on, oblivious. Some of National Geographic’s most breathtaking images capture the wonders of nature: Eduard Florin Niga’s portraits reveal in fine detail the diversity of some of the world’s tiniest faces—those of ants. Jennifer Hayes and David Doubilet plunge us into the wide-awake open sea at night, with visions of radiant cowfish and jackfish gliding in blackness. Brian Brown’s photograph of an iridescent orchid bee, collected from a soaring tower in the Brazilian Amazon, introduces a tropical cousin of our backyard bumblebees. It’s one of many Amazonian insects discovered and photographed for the first time. These images help us look beyond ourselves and find respite in the beauty and complexity of animals’ lives.

The specter of humans, though, is never far off. In some of our photographers’ most powerful wildlife images runs an undercurrent of threat. Thomas Peschak’s meerkats and pangolins in the Kalahari Desert, a climate change hot spot, bring into sharp focus their vulnerability. Mélanie Wenger’s image of a curious African penguin in Simon’s Town, South Africa, puts a spotlight on a species that is more endangered than the white rhino and potentially faces extinction within 15 years. 

Other photographs highlight helpers. Brent Stirton’s images of a caretaker cradling a dying gorilla he helped raise and of a pilot flying orphaned chimps to sanctuary, as well as Nichole Sobecki’s photographs of cheetah cubs rescued from the pet trade, document the victims of violence and the humans who try to undo terrible harm. 

The dominant theme among this collection, says Kathy Moran, National Geographic’s deputy director of photography, who curated the choices, is the human-wild connection. “Our photographers care so deeply about the stories they’re telling that they’re willing to go to extreme lengths to make photographs that no one has seen before and to share the natural world and all we need to be paying attention to.”

Moran, who is retiring this month after 40 years at the magazine, reflects on how our wildlife photojournalism has changed over the decades. “When I first started, what you’d see were the animal stories, and it was pure wildlife—pure natural history.” Photos celebrating wild creatures defined National Geographic’s wildlife storytelling for years. 

“There’s always going to be a place where that delight and charm is necessary,” Moran says. “But increasingly, what became clear to me, was to keep the focus just on that meant we were not telling half of the story.” 

National Geographic’s wildlife photojournalism, she says, has evolved into looking beyond merely why an animal fascinates to looking at the issues it faces. Underscoring our photographers’ work, she says, is often the question of “how do we find a way forward for them—and for us? That aspect of storytelling really started to mean more to me … I really felt that the most amazing natural history image was meaningless if that animal was under threat from X, Y, and Z, and we didn’t show it.”

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