The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tender

The good news about the photo above, if anything good can be said about it, is that the Gentoo penguin is already dead. The leopard seal, which had drowned it earlier, had been playing with the corpse in celebration of its victory — catching and releasing the penguin again and again before finally chomping down on the ill-fated bird. This image taken by Amos Nachoum is just one of many spectacular and jaw-dropping photos recently awarded by the National Wildlife Federation in its annual contest.

This year's winning crop, which was selected from over 28,000 entries, show the extremes that are a daily part of the animal kingdom — from a swarm of salmon encircling a grizzly bear, to the bewildered look of a four-eyed jumping spider. Here's a sampling of our favorites.

All text and images below via National Wildlife Federation.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

David Cardinal

(Grand prize)

When Cardinal spotted a female Harris's hawk guarding road kill in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, he expected action. These raptors form hunting groups to protect food from other predators, including nongroup members of their own kind. Cardinal prefocused on a branch "where an interloper was likely to land." Soon another female Harris's hawk showed up, and the first bird attacked. He says his winning image "captures the moment when the newly arrived hawk turns to meet the defending female's fully deployed talons."

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Lisa Hoffner

(Baby animals category)

While on safari in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, Hoffner's vehicle hit a large rock and got stuck. Lucky for her, four cheetah cubs happened to be playing on a log nearby. After three grew tired and lay down to rest, this cub "climbed to the top to get to eye level with its mom," she says. "They proceeded to gently groom one another before retiring to sleep in the shade."

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Colin Hutton

(Other wildlife category)

After searching for this jumping spider, Phidippus mystaceus, for two months, Hutton located some juveniles on pine saplings in North Carolina's Duke Forest at Duke University. A few weeks later, he took several thousand photos of the newly mature adults. This image-a combination of six photos shot rapidly (each at a slightly different focus) and merged using computer software-is his favorite. "I think the animal looks dignified and a bit comical at the same time," Hutton says.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Jamie Scarrow

(Mammals category)

Surrounded by salmon, this young grizzly still was having trouble getting enough to eat. The bear sat down in a pool in British Columbia's Knight Inlet, where "the water was just too deep and the fish too aware of its presence," says Scarrow, who captured the scene from a viewing platform directly above. "It's rare to have nature arrange itself in such an organized manner," he says, adding that the bear later moved to shallow water where it had better luck.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Alandra Palisser

Concealed inside her house behind a hanging basket in the window, Palisser photographed a rufous hummingbird "fascinated by its own reflection in a mirror ball, which it thought was an intruder in its territory." Palisser's yard is a haven for hummingbirds and other wildlife, filled with native plants such as bee balm, multiple nectar feeders and several water features, including a small lily pond containing a fountain. "Watching the birds gives us much pleasure," she says.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Bill Lamp'l

(Connecting people and nature category)

Long isolated from other jellyfish species in a remote marine lake in the Republic of Palau, these golden jellyfish do not sting strongly enough to harm humans, making close encounters possible. When a fellow snorkeler came face-to-face with one of the animals, Lamp'l "tried to capture the moment of wonder and excitement" that she was experiencing.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

David Hall

(Other wildlife category)

Hall waded into British Columbia's Adams River to photograph migrating sockeye salmon during October 2010, the largest run of these fish in a century. Battling a swift current that was wreaking havoc with his equipment, he sought refuge beside a large tree trunk. "I pointed my camera downstream," Hall says, "and on the back of the camera [its LCD screen] saw a virtual wall of sockeye facing me just inches away." Meanwhile, the setting sun turned the sky purple and pink, while his flash lit the water beneath the surface. "I began to photograph and did not stop until the light had all but disappeared," Hall says.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Hal and Kirsten Snyder

(Bird category)

Visiting Taipei, Hal and Kirsten Snyder spent several hours observing this endemic Taiwan barbet dig out its nest hole in a tree. "Fascinated, we watched as the colorful bird removed large mouthfuls of woodchips and scattered the rubbish in the wind," recalls Kirsten. Based in China for a few years, the Snyders travel frequently to take photos of wildlife. The barbet, which locals call "the five-colored bird," "is one of the most beautiful birds we've seen in Asia," Kirsten says.

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Francisco Mingorance

(Landscapes and plants category)

Located near the village of Castañeras, the Beach of Silence is "probably the most beautiful beach in western Asturias, Spain," says Mingorance. To capture this "star" of sea foam on the shore, he photographed the scene during low tide at night using a long exposure. Lights from the village and a lighthouse shine in the background. "After getting this image, I have visited the beach many times," says Mingorance, "but I've never seen this star with the same perfection."

The year's best wildlife photos show nature at its cruelest — and most tenderS

Ajay Parmar

(People's choice)

Congratulations to our 2012 People's Choice Award winner: Ajay Parmar, whose image of a striped hyena received more public votes than any other photo in an annual competition in which anyone who visits the contest website can vote. In his effort to photograph hyenas, Parmar spent three consecutive Sundays waking at 3:30 a.m. and driving three and a half hours to Velavadar National Park in Gujarat, India-without even spotting one of the animals. On the fourth Sunday, he was in luck when a hyena emerged from the grass and came strolling straight toward him. Because hyenas are nocturnal, getting an image of one in broad daylight is unusual. "This was one of my best days in wildlife photography," Parmar says.

Check out more contest winners here.