Photograph by Ami Vitale
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Samburu warriors from northern Kenya interact with a black rhino at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Rhinos were poached off Samburu land years before.
Photograph by Ami Vitale

8 National Geographic Photographers Share Their Animal Muses

Animals are at the heart of many of the stories we cover, and, for many readers, they’re synonymous with the name National Geographic. The visual narratives we create are crafted to showcase wildlife, presenting both the larger context of conservation and, in a rapidly changing world, the issues facing their survival.

The photographers behind these images share a singular passion and have dedicated their careers to showing us amazing behaviors in a way that makes us take notice and maybe even fall in love.

In celebration of the creatures both exotic and familiar who inhabit our planet, we reached out to eight of our photographers to ask: Of all the animals you’ve photographed, which one do you feel the most kinship with? Which one has changed your life or made you see the world in a different way? Their answers are shared below. —Alexa Keefe

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A female American bison (Bison bison) is photographed at the Oklahoma City Zoo as part of Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark project. Sartore has taken over 6,000 portraits of different species in an effort to create a photo archive of biodiversity. Photograph by Joel Sartore

Bison. They’re social, never stop moving, and don’t have much quit in them. And then there’s their ability to handle adversity. It’s not surprising; they evolved through scorching heat, epic migrations, and packs of wolves. Even today, in a horrendous blizzard that would kill every cow on the ranch, bison do just fine. They face into each approaching storm, head down, waiting. They know it won’t last forever. —Joel Sartore

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Ptarmigans camouflaged in the snow, Iceland Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

My favorite season is winter, and my favorite animals inhabiting the pure white winter landscape are the ptarmigans. They are masters of camouflage, molting the brown feathers that make them blend in the stone desert of the tundra in summer and changing into snow-white plumage to suit the winter season. They are invisible most of the time but loud and flashy if it is a prime necessity to be heard and seen.

These males—two rounded balls of feather—were the boldest wild animals I have ever encountered. They did not give the slightest sign of discomfort as I was approaching them and did not care about my presence even when I was at an arm’s-stretch distance. After feeding for a couple of hours they lay down in this amazing volcanic landscape in Iceland, covered by fresh snow. —Orsolya Haarberg

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Beverly and Dereck Joubert made a film about Legadema the leopard and later started the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. “During the five years we spent with Legadema,” Beverly Joubert says, “10,000 other leopards were killed legally by safari hunting alone—leopards with personalities and characters similar to Legadema’s.” Photograph by Beverly Joubert

I could be in the presence of leopards every minute of each day. Around 2003 [my husband] Dereck [Joubert] and I were fortunate to discover a newborn leopard cub. We had been tracking its mother for a few days. She led us to her den, where we met this tiny little fluffy fur ball, who we later called Legadema.

Legadema wobbled around her mother’s feet, very vulnerable. I instantly fell in love with this precious little creature. She was so exquisite in every way, from her camouflaged, beautiful fur coat to those piercing eyes. As she grew, her steel-blue eyes turned an incredible shade of bright amber, and they were always attentive.

She was filled with curiosity while she explored and investigated the forest. On many days she stared right at me, appearing to understand that we were not there to harm her but to protect her species. Her eyes would show compassion, which is so much of what I felt in her company.

The moments we spent with this mother and daughter were a lesson in caring and compassion. Their attention to each other, as if nothing else mattered, was part of the love affair I started feeling for all leopards. This moment changed our lives. For three and a half years we followed this inquisitive little cat. She seduced us to the point that we had no choice but to become ambassadors for leopards. —Beverly Joubert

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A gray wolf from the Mollie’s pack moves through Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Ronan Donovan’s photographs of wolves will be featured in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photograph by Ronan Donovan

The first story I worked on for National Geographic magazine deals with an animal that resembles humans in many ways: social mammals, strong family bonds, top predators, and a global distribution that rivals our own.

I remember standing alone in the darkness listening to the wolves playing a hundred meters away. Poised in the still air, I was silent. I didn’t want to disturb the wilderness. Several minutes later I began to hear the sound of legs brushing through the tall grass in front of me. A few yips and snarls ensued as the pack of 14 wolves naively ran down the hill toward me. I decided it was time to respectfully make my presence known, so I turned on my headlamp. Three jet-black wolves froze in the beam of light before [racing] in the opposite direction. I walked back to my truck as the wolf pack howled, reaffirming their bonds as a family group.

The gray wolf evokes nearly every kind of emotion, from elation to vitriol. It also symbolizes wild places, places that haven’t been completely engulfed by western civilization. For that reason, I feel strongly connected to both living wolves and the idea of wolves. They are wild, as we once were. —Ronan Donovan

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Matted with blood, an African wild dog—named Tremblant by researchers—pauses from devouring his impala kill to watch for other pack members. Photograph by Chris Johns

Tremblant is in pursuit of the impala like a heat-seeking missile. The impala zigs and zags, but the 75-pound African wild dog isn’t fooled and takes a straight line, gaining at roughly 35 miles per hour. In desperation, the impala leaps over a three-foot-high sage bush. Tremblant clears the barrier by a foot and turns in midair. They land simultaneously. The dog body checks the 160-pound antelope and rips into his flank. Silently the 12-dog pack arrives. Tremblant waits. He’s the strong one. The puppies and older dogs eat first. They consume the impala in less than four minutes. Tremblant is still hungry, so under fading light another hunt begins.

For two years in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I photographed Tremblant doing extraordinary things that never ceased to amaze me. He was the gifted athlete and put that to use as a fearless, focused hunter who embraced his role in the pack. But he was more than that: Tremblant was the consummate family man who loved to play with the puppies and always put the pack first. He lived by Rudyard Kipling’s creed in Law of the Jungle: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

African wild dogs are my spirit animals, and Tremblant is at the head of the pack.—Chris Johns

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The jewel wasp is also known as the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa). Photograph by Anand Varma

The jewel wasp makes its living by stabbing its stinger into the brain of a cockroach and injecting a special venom that disables the roach’s voluntary muscle control. The wasp then leads the sedated and obedient roach back to its den so that it can feed it alive to its young.

This is not exactly a lifestyle I can relate to on a personal level. But even though this wasp looks nothing like us, our underlying biology is similar at a basic level, so it can actually teach us a lot about how our bodies and brains work. Scientists are studying this wasp to try to develop better treatments for Parkinson’s because that disease affects humans in a way that is similar to how the wasp’s venom affects cockroaches. So much of the diversity on our planet goes unloved because we struggle to relate to weird, squiggly, squirmy creatures. To me, this wasp is a reminder of what we miss out on when we forget to appreciate the little guys. —Anand Varma

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A harp seal pup seeks shelter from the relentless winds that scour the sea ice covering the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec, Canada. Jennifer Hayes was on assignment with her husband and photographic partner, David Doubilet, for the May 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photograph by Jennifer Hayes

While on assignment for National Geographic magazine I discovered a magical place on this Earth that entered into my soul and has changed the way I think—the world of the harp seal. Harp seals are born on the sea ice covering the Gulf of St. Lawrence in late February. They are nursed for 12 to 15 days until their mother abandons them to mate and migrate.

For our work we pull our fishing boat into the ice and stay in the pack, drifting with the seals day and night. The cries of the harp seal pups are incredibly human. They penetrate the hull of our boat into my dreams. It is extraordinary to see this pulse of life in the ice—to follow it from birth to beneath the surface for its first swim—and then watch the pups learn what it is to be a harp seal when their mother leaves. I have laughed with, wept for, and been bitten, mauled, and saved by harp seals. I get a catch in my throat talking about them.

Sadly, life in the ice is hard, and natural mortality is high. Recent years of higher than normal temperatures in the gulf have lead to unstable ice and mass mortality of harp seal pups. This assignment brought us face-to-face with climate change and with the most beautiful creature in the world. It draws us back every year. Now is the time of the harp seal pup, and we await news of this year’s survivorship. —Jennifer Hayes

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Samburu warriors from northern Kenya interact with a black rhino at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Rhinos were poached off Samburu land years before. Photograph by Ami Vitale

Black rhinos have become my spirit animal. They may not be as cute and cuddly as a giant panda bear, but these majestic creatures have captured my heart. They survived for thousands of years but may not be able to survive mankind. As recently as 1970, an estimated 65,000 black rhinos could be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. But in eastern Africa, 90 percent of them were killed in the 1970s. Now there are fewer than 5,000 left worldwide. —Ami Vitale