The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Yes, it's an alligator that appears to be shooting laser beams out of its eyes. And that's pretty awesome. But this image by Larry Lynch is just one of the absolutely stunning and revelatory images in this year's Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

There are over 100 images among the contest winners and runners up this year. Some of them will make you cheer, others will break your heart a little. Check out our favorites here. And here's our feature on last year's winners.

All text and images below, via Natural History Museum of London.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Father's little mouthful

Steven Kovacs (Canada)

A dusky jawfish father is a diligent parent, protecting fertilised eggs in his mouth until they hatch. This male, in the opening of his burrow off the coast of Florida, was aerating his eggs. Says Steven: ‘He seemed unconcerned by my presence and didn't retreat into his burrow when I started taking pictures.' Steven used home-made snoots (tubes that control the direction and radius of light) to focus the light on both sides of the jawfish's face. ‘He couldn't have been more cooperative,' says Steve. ‘For the next hour he barely moved,' more interested in making sure the eggs were rotated and in a good flow of water.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Into the mouth of the caiman

Luciano Candisani (Brazil)

Motionless but alert, a yacare caiman waits, ‘like a small tyrannosaurus' for fish to come within snapping reach, says Luciano. Caimans are usually seen floating passively on the surface. Under the water, it's another story. It's this secret life that has fascinated Luciano ever since he first came face to face with a caiman while snorkelling. Once he'd recovered from the shock, he realised that the reptile was neither aggressive nor fearful – and that he could approach it. Luciano now regularly documents the underwater life of caimans in the shallow, murky waters of Brazil's Pantanal (the biggest wetland in the world), which contains the largest single crocodilian population on Earth.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Practice run

Grégoire Bouguereau (France)

When a female cheetah caught but didn't kill a Thomson's gazelle calf and waited for her cubs to join her, Grégoire guessed what was about to happen. He'd spent nearly a decade studying and photographing cheetahs in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, and he knew that the female's behaviour meant one thing: a hunting lesson was due to begin. The female moved away, leaving the calf lying on the ground near her cubs. At first, the cubs took no notice of it. But when it struggled jerkily to its feet ‘the cubs' natural predatory instincts were triggered,' says Grégoire. ‘Each cub's gaze locked on to the calf as it made a break for freedom.' The lesson repeated itself several times, with the cubs ignoring the calf when it was on the ground and catching it whenever it tried to escape – ‘an exercise that affords the cubs the chance to practise chases in preparation for the time they'll have to do so for real.'

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Bubble-jetting emperors

Paul Nicklen (Canada)

This was the image Paul had been so hoping to get: a sunlit mass of emperor penguins charging upwards, leaving in their wake a crisscross of bubble trails. The location was near the emperor colony at the edge of the frozen area of the Ross Sea, Antarctica. It was into the only likely exit hole that he lowered himself. He then had to wait for the return of the penguins, crops full of icefish for their chicks. Paul locked his legs under the lip of the ice so he could remain motionless, breathing through a snorkel so as not to spook the penguins when they arrived. Then it came: a blast of birds from the depths. They were so fast that, with frozen fingers, framing and focus had to be instinctive. ‘It was a fantastic sight', says Paul, ‘as hundreds launched themselves out of the water and onto the ice above me' – a moment that I felt incredibly fortunate to witness and one I'll never forget.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

The lion pack

David Hall (USA)

David had tried many times to get close-ups of Steller sea lions – large and very active mammals that can grow up to an impressive four metres in length and weigh more than a ton. On this particular winter day he got more than he bargained for. Waiting patiently off Hornby Island, British Columbia, with appalling visibility, he suddenly realised he wasn't alone. There were at least 30 huge, inquisitive sea lions, swimming ever closer through the gloomy, green water. As their numbers increased, they grew bolder, and soon they were tugging on his arms and legs, and pushing him about. ‘The situation was potentially dangerous,' says David, who was diving alone, ‘and so I grabbed a few hasty shots, without checking camera settings or even looking through the viewfinder, and then made a sharp exit.' Loading the images onto his laptop later, he was amazed to see how well many of the shots had come out. ‘That night in my bunk,' he adds, ‘I couldn't sleep. All I could see were eyes staring at me in the dark.'

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Snatch and grab

Stefan Huwiler (Switzerland)

Stefan hiked for five kilometres in thick snow in the Sinite Kamani National Park in Bulgaria to reach a hide known to be a golden eagle hotspot. It was one of the coldest winters in recent years, and using a vehicle was out of the question. On the second day, he spent a long while watching a golden eagle eating a carcass. ‘I was able to get some great portrait shots,' says Stefan, ‘but what happened next took me by surprise.' A red fox sidled up and tried to snatch the meal, but the eagle was having none of it. ‘After a short, fierce spat, the fox fled with the eagle literally hard on its heels.' A golden eagle can kill prey even bigger than a fox, but with a carcass to defend, the eagle was almost certainly just trying to scare the fox away rather than grab it.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

The duel

Sergey Gorshkov (Russia)

In late May, about a quarter of a million snow geese arrive from North America to nest on Wrangel Island, in northeastern Russia. They form the world's largest breeding colony of snow geese. Sergey spent two months on the remote island photographing the unfolding dramas. Arctic foxes take advantage of the abundance of eggs and, later, goslings, caching surplus eggs for leaner times. But a goose (here the gander) is easily a match for a fox, which must rely on speed and guile to steal eggs. ‘The battles were fairly equal,' notes Sergey, ‘and I only saw a fox succeed in grabbing an egg on a couple of occasions, despite many attempts.' Surprisingly, ‘the geese lacked any sense of community spirit', he adds, ‘and never reacted when a fox harassed a neighbouring pair nesting close by.'

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Lion by lightning

Hannes Lochner (South Africa)

This young male seemed blissfully unconcerned by the lightning and thunder rolling in across the Kalahari. Hannes, who was taking night shots in the South African part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, came across him stretched out beside the track. ‘He raised his head to stare at me a couple of times,' says Hannes, ‘but he wasn't really interested in either me or the dramatic goings-on behind him.' Hannes worked fast, framing the lion against the illuminated night sky at the moment a bolt of lightning flashed to the ground. ‘Just after I took this picture,' he adds, ‘there were a few more lightning bolts and then everything went still and dark again.'

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

The glance

Jami Tarris (USA)

Two of the young Sulawesi black-crested macaques entered into a boisterous game with an older, stronger male, involving much ear-piercing shrieking and chasing. Though they were in high spirits, Jami had spent weeks with them and could tell that their play was becoming increasingly heated. When the playmates huddled briefly together, she snatched a close-up shot. But as she did, the older male threw her an intense and challenging look. ‘I didn't take this lightly,' Jami says, and she quickly withdrew to a safe distance. Moments later, the older macaque turned rough, and the younger ones scattered, screeching. The real drama is that these characterful primates are at high risk of extinction, both from poaching and forest loss on their Indonesian island home.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Display of vulnerability

Staffan Widstrand (Sweden)

When a great bustard is in mid-display, his concentration is on one thing – females, and attracting them by puffing out his chest, throwing up his whiskers and fanning out his huge tail and wing feathers. A wire fence just doesn't get noticed.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Garbage picking

Jasper Doest (The Netherlands)

‘This was the filthiest shoot I have ever done,' says Jasper. ‘Clambering about this ghastly landfill site in southern Spain made me aware of just how much trash we generate on a daily basis.' In the Andalucía region of Spain and elsewhere, the dumps are affecting the storks' natural behaviour. Instead of feeding on frogs, insects, young birds, rodents and worms, they are attracted to this ready source of rotting food, ingesting potentially lethal elements, in particular, rubber bands and plastics, even feeding them to their chicks.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Trophy room

David Chancellor (UK)

The sheer diversity of stuffed animals in the one room is extraordinary, but the focal point is not the leopard or the rhino but the man with the cigar, relaxed in the corner. He is a lawyer from Dallas, Texas, and has shot all of the animals. In fact, his collection amounts to more than 230 stuffed and mounted trophies, which he has killed during a lifetime of hunting. He is a recipient of the Dallas Safari Club Africa Big Game Award for his collection of African elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard, and the Outstanding Hunting Achievement Award for his 30-year quest and collection of all 30 North American ‘big game' animals, of which 15 are ‘records class' (big).

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

The end of sharks

Paul Hilton (UK/Australia)

Workers at Dong Gang Fish Market in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, routinely process thousands of frozen shark fins a day to service the growing international demand for shark-fin soup. Once a delicacy, the dish is increasingly popular with China's growing middle class. The statistics are grim: up to 100 million sharks are killed each year, 73 million for their fins to service this demand, taking one in three shark species to the brink of extinction.

The Year's Most Thrilling (and Heartbreaking) Wildlife Photos

Deadly Medicine

Brent Stirton (South Africa)

This is a tragic story about a growing fashion for consuming rhino horn that now threatens the extinction of rhinos. Their horns, mere keratin, the substance of fingernails, is now more valuable than gold on the Asian black market.

Check out tons more of pictures and amazing stories over at the Natural History Museum of London site.