IT is certainly a family portrait with a difference.
Captured almost as if they were posing in a studio, for a moment it is possible to forget that these are wild animals, pictured in their natural habitat.
The rare image is one of 100 breathtaking and insightful pictures on display in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which will open at the National Museum of Scotland next week.
Known as the Oscars of wildlife photography, tens of thousands of photographers from all over the world competed to be in with a chance of making the final cut.
The exhibition, which always opens in the Natural History Museum in London before embarking on a UK and international tour, launches in Edinburgh on Monday – the only Scottish date in its diary.
Dr Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland, says: “The complexities of the natural world hold a special fascination for us all. As scientists, we work to try and understand more about these complexities.
“However, as scientists, we can often struggle to convey our knowledge in an intelligible way. I therefore have nothing but admiration for the way these photographers are able to simply and effectively get a message across to the visitor. This is an awe-inspiring world and it is essential we act as good custodians.”
Visitors to the exhibition will be treated to a vast array of animals, ranging from a field mouse nibbling grain in Switzerland, to lions, elephants and jaguars bravely captured in their natural habitats.
South African photographer Greg du Toit was chosen as the overall winner of the photography competition with his image that is bound to wow museum visitors.
His photograph – which was ten years in the making – is described as a “mysterious and energetic portrait” of African elephants in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in Botswana.
Greg says: “For many years, I’ve wanted to create an image that captures their special energy and the state of consciousness that I sense when I’m with them. This image comes closest to doing that.”
The incredible image of the gharial crocodiles – entitled Mother’s Little Headful – was taken by 14-year-old photographer Udayan Rao Pawar, which earned him the title of Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Udayan, who camped close to the river overnight, says: “When dawn broke, I saw this scene. The mother rose to the surface from the murky depths of the river in response to the guttural calls of hatchlings, which then rushed towards her and climbed over her exposed head. Perhaps it made them feel safe.”
Competition judge Tui De Roy, an acclaimed naturalist and wildlife photographer, explains why the teenager won the title. “The composition and timing of Udayan’s photograph is perfect. The mother’s gaze seems directed at you, appealing to you to let her live and thrive in peace. This image is beautiful and thought-provoking, but at the same time also wonderfully playful, making it a clear winner.”
Other rare and often unseen moments captured by photographers include the split second a fox pounces and leaps into mid-air in Yellowstone National Park, in order to capture its prey, and a polar bear swimming in Canada.
Photographer Paul Souders took his boat to Hudson Bay and searched for three days before he spotted the young female polar bear on sea ice 30 miles offshore, before finally capturing her in the water.
“I approached her very, very slowly,” he says, “and then drifted. It was a cat-and-mouse game. There was just a flat world of water and ice and this polar bear swimming lazily around me. I could hear her slow, regular breathing as she watched me below the surface or the exhalation as she surfaced, increasingly curious. It was very special.”
Dr Fraser adds: “The remarkable photographs that make up this exhibit are inspirational. In the same way that scientists try to approach their work from new angles, so many of the photographs explore completely new perspectives, often on very familiar animals and environments.
“The polar bear below the ice, the face-to-face encounter with a turtle, or the swirling mass of shoals of fish will instantly mesmerise the visitor. You will not leave this exhibit without being captivated by the beauty of the place we call home.”
n The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is open daily at the museum, free of charge.