A good figure can often elevate a scientific text from informative to inspiring. What would Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” be without its branching tree of life, or James Watson and Francis Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA be without its emblematic double helix? While perhaps not as groundbreaking as these historic illustrations, the following photographs also inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world.
The behavior of the “Bobbit worm,” a 10-foot creature from the ocean floor, is just as terrifying as its looks. The worm snaps at fish from its hiding place underneath the sand, often scissoring them in two with its mandibles.
This photograph of the Jersey City skyline, taken using a thermal camera, demonstrates the heat retention capacity of large urban areas. In the summer, these “urban heat islands” can be up to 22°F warmer than their undeveloped surroundings.
One might expect this intricate, weblike formation to be a textbook example of evolution in action, but the opposite is true: its origins have stymied scientists the world over. Located by a graduate student in the Peruvian Amazon, the structure is thought to be the product of a moth or spider, but no one is certain.
This panorama may look like a piece of moldy bread, but it actually depicts the craters and valleys of Mars. NASA scientists believe that these features were formed by meltwater from snow, hinting at the planet’s wet (and possibly life-sustaining) history.
The gum-lead skeletonizer caterpillar is just one of the animal oddities depicted on the delightfully zany “WTF, Evolution?” Tumblr. As it undergoes molting, the insect retains the exoskeleton around its head, leading to the distinctive “stovepipe hat” appearance.
The Hang Son Doong caverns may be the most massive subterranean passage in the world; for scale, that beam of light comes from a headlamp attached to a person. It is estimated that the caves could contain a continuous half-mile of 40-story skyscrapers.
Although this 3-D model of the human brain, grown using stem cells by a team of Viennese researchers, isn’t what first comes to mind from the phrase “brain in a jar,” it has the potential to answer real questions about neurological disease. The so-called cerebral organoid shares much of the organizational development of an actual brain and could serve as a model for diseases like autism.