At first glance this photograph of Heron Reef, in the southernmost section of the Great Barrier Reef, looks somewhat unremarkable, uninteresting even. Look just a little longer, though, and the octopus hiding in plain sight will become clear.

The image was taken by University of Queensland postdoctoral student Michelle Achlatis, who is undertaking research with UQ’s Coral Reef Ecosystems lab, focused on metabolic dynamics of coral reef bioerosion. Healthy coral reefs, she says, are the underwater equivalent of tropical rainforests: they teem with life, sometimes conspicuously, other times a little harder to spot, “like this octopus that pretended to be a coral as I approached it”.

Achlatis’s photograph is the editor’s pick in the 2017 BMC Ecology Image Competition. It’s a reminder, says one of the online journal’s editors, Michel Baguette, of how integrated different species are within coral ecosystems. “This octopus, so beautifully adapted to its environment, could clearly not survive outside this habitat."

BMC Ecology established the competition, now in its fifth year, to give ecologists the chance to share their research and photographic skills, and celebrate the intersection of art and science. The eight winning photographs show the diversity of ecology as a field of research.

Figure 1 overall winner podocnemis expansa ana carolina lima .jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Podocnemis expansa
Ana Carolina Lima, University of Aveiro, Portugal

Overall winner: a shot of giant South American turtles (Podocnemis expansa) taken in the Cantão State Park in Tocantins, Brazil. “The park is located in the Brazilian ‘Savanna’ or Cerrado, a biodiversity hotspot that is yet poorly known but is thought to be equally or even more biodiverse than the Amazon ecosystem,” Lima says. “I was there as part of a research group working in the field to collect data on the status of reptiles and amphibians’ populations for conservation purposes.”

Figure 2 first runner up two towers christin s%c3%a4wstr%c3%b6m.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Two Towers
Christin Säwström, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia

Second place winner: a winter landscape of East Antarctic sea ice. During her PhD Säwström spent more than a year at Davis station in the Australian Antarctic Territory doing research on two freshwater lakes in the Antarctic lake oasis known as the Vestfold Hills. “I was lucky to capture these ‘two towers’ and the striking moon on a sea-ice trip near the Davis station in June 2004,” she says.

Figure 3 second runner up connections roberto garc%c3%ada roa.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Roberto García-Roa, University of Valencia, Spain

Third place winner: This image shows a four-way species interaction – of flower, bee, crab spider and parasitic fly – and illustrates the complexity of food webs. “Conservation cannot be understood without taking into account the interaction among species,” Garci-Roa says. “The disappearance of one species might provoke other connected species suffering direct consequences.”

Figure 4 behavioral ecology winner wakeful ma%c3%aflis huguin.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Maïlis Huguin, Institut Pasteur de la Guyane, French Guiana

Behavioral and Physiological Ecology category winner: An Ectatomma ant on alert defending its territory.

Figure 5 community   population winner catchers on a hot tin roof trevor sherwin.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Catchers on a Hot Tin Roof
Trevor Sherwin, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Community, Population and Macroecology category winner: Oystercatchers assemble early in the morning on the roof of a disused boat shed on the Otago Peninsula, South Island, New Zealand.

Figure 6 conservation winner tibetan antelope zhigang jiang.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Tibetan antelope
Zhigang Jiang, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Conservation Ecology and Biodiversity Research category winner: A male Tibetan antelope guards a herd of females in the Kekexili region of the northern Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan antelope once numbered in their millions on the alpine meadows of the plateau, but poaching for their prized wool reduced the population to less than 100,000 last century, though numbers have been gradually recovering under strict protection.

Figure 7 landscape winner las ca%c3%b1adas del teide harry seijmonsbergen.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Las Cañadas del Teide
Harry Seijmonsbergen, University of Amsterdam

Landscape Ecology and Ecosystems category winner: This image shows a microhabitat 2,100 metres up the El Teide mountain on Tenerife island, Spain. The unique geological environment microhabitat sustains a rare mixture of the Canary pine (Pinus canariensis) and the flowering endemic Teide bugloss (Echium wildpretii), among other plants. “Signs of forest fire, especially on the pine trees, emphasise the vulnerability and dynamic nature of this ecologically fragile ecosystem,” Seijmonsbergen says.