Fur, Feathers, and Scales: National Geographic’s Majestic Animals

“The cover of National Geographic is an invitation. ‘Come look,’ it says. ‘See what wonder the world contains.'”—Chris Johns, former Editor in Chief

The first cover photograph to appear along with the magazine’s classic yellow border was in September 1959, of a U.S. Navy fighter jet. Since then, the cover images have brought readers to every continent, to the ocean depths and into space as part of the magazine’s acclaimed storytelling. National Geographic’s new book, The Covers, continues this journey with backstories about the subjects and the photographers.

Over the past few weeks, we have been combing through the over 600 illustrated covers to bring you gems that catch our eye in categories we are known for: people and culture, exploration, and animals. So far we’ve featured some of the classically cool women who’ve appeared on the cover, some daring dudes, and incredible feats of man. This week we share the most beautiful creatures from the animal kingdom in all their glory.


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Top row, left to right:

November 1966. A queen angelfish swims through a coral reef in the Florida keys. “The queen angelfish earns its title with graceful form, stately movement, and rich coloring. Even as a juvenile, the angelfish cloaks itself in hues befitting a princess. Vertical bars mask eyes and break up the youngster’s outline, confusing predators.” From a story titled “Marvels of a Coral Realm.”  Photograph by Walter A. Starck II, Ph.D.

February 1969. He had a reputation as a bit of a daredevil, so it would be no surprise if the late Philip Kahl was nowhere near a vehicle when he encountered this old tusker. An ornithologist by training, Kahl was actually in Kenya on a National Geographic grant to study flamingos in the alkaline lakes of the Great Rift Valley. But he eventually became an authority on elephants as well. Photograph by M. Philip Kahl

April 1973. The bizarre-looking fish is really just a variety of goldfish with large fluid-filled eye sacs—one of numerous fanciful breeds popular in Asia. Paul Zahl, the Geographic’s staff naturalist, specialized in biological oddities such as giant frogs, four-eyed fish, and fanged denizens of the deep. Photograph by Paul A. Zahl

February 1974. A red fox leaves a campsite near the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine after eating campers’ discarded food. Photograph by Farrell Grehan

Bottom row, left to right:

March 1979. When photographing birds became his specialty, staff photographer Bates Littlehales found that often a car not only got him places but also made a good shooting platform, as birds sometimes fled men but ignored automobiles. When he made this picture of a tufted puffin, however, the closest car was in San Francisco, some 28 miles away. Littlehales was visiting the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where seabird colonies congregated on craggy, surf-beaten rocks—some of them so steep that he had to be hoisted ashore by crane. Photograph by Bates Littlehales

May 1987. In a tranquil fjord indenting Canada’s Ellesmere Island, an arctic wolf probes the shallows for food. Buster, as Jim Brandenburg had named this alpha male, always took the lead when his pack scavenged along a nearby beach. Although the time is past 2 a.m., twilight still suffuses the sky in this land of the midnight sun, adding its magical touch to those summers during which he lived among the wolves. “It’s the story that defines my career,” the celebrated wildlife photographer recalled. “I knew I would never top it.” Photograph by Jim Brandenburg

March 1997. Saucer eyes reveal surprise as a bearded seal confronts an intruder in the Arctic Ocean. Photograph by Flip Nicklin

August 2011. Neither polar bear nor albino, the Kermode, or “spirit bear,” is really a black bear with a recessive gene for light-colored coats. Living in the rain forests of British Columbia—where this female found crab apples so abundant she never bothered fishing for salmon—they tolerated photographer Paul Nicklen’s proximity. Photograph by Paul Nicklen


National Geographic’s new book The Covers: Iconic Photographs, Unforgettable Stories is available for purchase here.