The Milky Way illuminates the Saharan night sky with its stars and reveals the sandstone silhouettes of the Tadrart mountain range. Wind erosion has sculpted these stone forms seen in the Tassili n’Ajjer national park in Algeria.
The Universe formed 15 billion years ago following the effects of an incredibly rapid expansion, known as cosmic inflation. Stars came into being at that time and lit the surrounding darkness. When they died, they fertilized the dust they had rejected. They nourished the very first organisms of the solar system.
A layer of pulverulent sulphur covers parts of the hydrothermal site of Dallol in northern Ethiopia. It suddenly ignites into blue flames that scurry along the ground’s surface. This phenomenon is rare and has yet to be explained.
Human communities have always attempted to elucidate the mysteries of life and of the Universe. The world’s myths and religions rely on the quest to understand our origins. While scientists ask “how”, men, philosophers and believers question the “why”.
When eruptions occur on the Sun’s surface, certain particles escape and penetrate the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. These particles collide with gas molecules to produce Aurora Borealis, the magical lights that irradiate the Norwegian taiga.
Shooting stars, polar auroras and lightning remind us that the Earth, which formed approximately 4.6 billion years ago, is the product of the Universe.
Pieces of ice and icebergs float and tintinnabulate along the Jökulsárlón lagoon in southern Iceland. Suddenly, the elusively intense Aurora Borealis ignites the skies. The luminous arc stretches, vibrates, amplifies and fills the heavens. It then vanishes in the glacial silence of the night.
Seventy million years after the Earth was initially created, several layers began to form when the planet was still very hot. The rotation of a solid kernel inside a liquid core is the source of the Earth’s geomagnetic field which still protects it from the solar winds that produce polar auroras.
A wall of lava fountains can be seen along the open fissure vent of the Bárðarbunga volcano in northern Iceland. The eruption started in August, 2014, and 1,4 km3 of lava were released, thus congealing the region’s landscape for a long time.
Primitive Earth continued forming while often being blasted by asteroids. The impacts of these astronomical objects increased the Earth’s temperature significantly. The external part of the mantle melted due to the disintegration of radioactive elements. The Earth then found itself covered in a magmatic ocean.
The highest natural temperatures –as high as 1 200 °C –have been recorded in the Nyiragongo volcano’s lava lake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the lake slowly overflows, it makes a backwash sound that can be heard from the very top of the crater.
Chaos and disorder reigned supreme in the kingdom of Hades, the master of the Netherworld in Ancient Greek mythology. This god gave his name to the Hadean, the most ancient eon on the geologic time scale, which went from –4.5 billion to –3.8 billion years, before giving way to the Archean period.
The incandescence at the base of pyroclastic flows can only be revealed at night. This flow composed of ash, boulders and high-temperature gas whooshes down the slope of the Sinabung volcano on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Glowing torrents, lava fountains and earthquakes clue us in on the formidable energy that gave birth to our small planet. Destructive and life-giving forces continue to animate the planet to this day.
The Nyiragongo is one of the most active volcanos in the African rift; it is located in the Virunga Mountains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its lava lake bubbles at the bottom of a 500 metre-deep caldron, glaring at dusk’s glimmering lights with its Cyclops eye.
The basalts produced by primitive earth formed rafts of terrestrial crust, similar to those floating on this lava lake. As they weighed more when they cooled, they sank in the depths of a magmatic ocean churned by convection movements.
The Ol Doinyo Lengaï in Tanzania is the only volcano in the world known to expel carbonatite lava. The night skies allow us to view the lava’s muted orange incandescence. These flows, rich in carbonate, appear black during the day and become white within twenty-four hours.
Studying volcanoes today gives us indications on the intensity of volcanic activity in Archean times, from –3,8 to –2,5 billion years, although current volcanoes pale in comparison with those that were active so long ago.
The Tavurvur volcano in Papua New Guinea erupts often. It is one of the 452 volcanoes in the famous “ring of fire”, as oceanic plates sink under the continental masses along the Earth’s 40 000 kilometre-long seam.
The earth’s infancy was punctuated by gigantic volcanic eruptions in which huge amounts of carbon dioxide, sulphur and chlorine were released in the atmosphere, after having been initially stored in the Earth’s deepest recesses.
A torrent of fluid lava enters a deep gorge, as a result of the fissure eruption of the Eyjafjöll volcano in 2010 in Iceland. It only takes a few days for the flow to fill the crevasse that water had taken hundreds of years to carve.
Approximately 4.4 billion years ago, the Earth was still steeped in a primitive atmosphere. Its intense plate tectonics led to the creation of terrestrial crust and the emergence of the very first supercontinents: Vaalbara, Kenorland, Columbia, Rodinia, Pannotia and Pangea, the latter being the most famous one today.
These lava fountains go up as high as 200 metres. They illustrate the fissure eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano in northern Iceland.
A mid-ocean ridge emerged in Iceland. It is an underwater chain of mountains spanning a distance of 65 000 kilometres, discovered during seabed explorations in the 1970s. Effusive eruptions often occur there. Fluid lava flows spread and contribute to the expansion of the ocean floor.
A lava flow has escaped from the Eyjafjöll volcano. As it streams down the slope, it breaks the mountain’s icy crust. Gas expansion provokes explosions and leads to ash and incandescent boulders being expelled in all directions. The reaction is known as being phreatomagmatic.
“What is the Earth’s engine? Energy! Or, to be more exact, energy transfers: erosion, the erection of mountains, volcanism – these are the products of gravitation and of the convections at the heart of our planet” Patrick De Wever, geologist.
The Eyjafjallajökull glacier changes colours. From bluish white, it turns to deep black, as it finds itself perforated by the explosions of the underlying volcano. The European airspace was shut down for several weeks due to the ash plume being pushed by north-western winds.
A sudden surge of climate warming occurred while Pangea, the last of the supercontinents, was dislocating. This rise in temperatures was provoked by immense outpourings of lava, the latter of which are still visible in Antarctica, Australia and South America. Such climate change led to one of the Earth’s large-scale biodiversity crises, 182 million years ago.
A plume of ash and swirls of vapour rise up in the icy twilight of Kamtchatka, a volcanic peninsula situated in the Russian Far East. These ashen signs are markers for the eruption of the Tolbachik volcano.
By expelling huge amounts of gas, the massive lava emission in Deccan, India, seemed to have accentuated the devastating effects of the fall of the Chicxulub meteorite in Mexico. This meteorite impact led to the fifth great extinction in the late Mesozoic era and early Cenozoic era, 66 million years ago.
The Tolbachik volcano started erupting in 2012. It discharged fountains and torrents of lava in the middle of the immaculate lands of Kamtchatka, in eastern Russia. More than 200 volcanoes are present in this wild peninsula, some of which are in constant eruption.
The Earth went through its first ice age well before the Quaternary period, between –2.4 billion and –2.1 billion years. It was the longest glacial period in its history. The entire planet may have been confined in ice.
These enigmatic electric-blue flames can only be seen at night; they ignite the bottom of the Kawah Ijen crater in Indonesia. It is not lava, but rather flarings of gas saturated with sulphur dioxide, which fuse at 600°C and ignite when in contact with air.
Men have known of blue flames since Antiquity, and Pliny the Younger described the phenomenon. But blue flames are still linked to the imagery of hell.
The Kilauea volcano, on Big Island in Hawaii has been erupting for thirty-three years. It spits out rivers of lava, which flow through tunnels of solidified magma, before setting their claws in the ocean.
Volcanism in Hawaii is typical of “hotspots”. These upsurges of mantle material end up piercing the drifting tectonic plates, just like a blowtorch would perforate a moving piece of sheet metal. These abnormal mantle sources contributed to the fragmentation of the supercontinents, including Pangea, which started to dislocate only 250 million years ago.
The hydrothermal site of Dallol in northern Ethiopia is a permanent art exhibition in which shapes and colours all stem from mineral wealth: one can see azure blue and opal green basins, lemon-yellow sulphur terraces, geyserite ledges, inflows of brine, and a layer of fine salt crystals.
Life appeared 3.8 billions of years ago, in an environment similar to that of Dallol, in which there was a concentration of extremes: acidity levels surpassed any known norms, the temperature of fluids reached 110°C, the salinity level was between 30 and 50%, and the environment’s aridity was extreme.
The full moon rises. With its cold light, it magnifies a surprising planet: the hydrothermal site of Dallol and its many shades of colour. The site in turn illuminates the Danakil Depression and the arid expanses of land located at the very end of the Ethiopian rift.
The Dallol site is magical and sulphurous. But will this haven of beauty –the result of the interaction between volcanism and hydrology– manage to resist against the exploitation of huge potash deposits in the salt plain?
Fluorescent arabesques stemming from sulphur deposits can be seen dancing above recently cooled lava at the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia, one of the volcanoes of the rift.
The Great Rift Valley is 40 to 60 kilometres-wide, its fissure is 6 000 kilometres long, running along the African continent. The Great Rift illustrates the movement of tectonic plates. A new ocean is therefore in the midst of opening up, separating Africa and the Arabian Peninsula at a rate of one centimetre per year.
Sandstone vessels skim over an ocean of marlstone and clay. Since the more tender layers of Luna Mesa have faded away with erosion, its tabular surfaces are now visible near Caineville in Utah.
2.5 billion years ago, the Earth evacuated incredibly large amounts of heat. This allowed it to surround itself with a lighter solid crust which floated above a mantle core. Modern Earth was about to embark on a new journey.
A small early-morning cloud hovers over Uluru. It is tinged with the colours of the desert at dawn. The mythical Aboriginal rock emerges out of the dry vastness in the territories of northern Australia.
Life had already appeared when photosynthetic organisms released large quantities of oxygen in the sea between – 2.4 and – 2 billion years. Iron oxidized, precipitated and accumulated in the sea beds. 85% of the mineral currently being exploited in the red rocks of Australia, Southern Africa and South America dates from that period.
The “Half Dome”, a gigantic block of granite, is caught in a storm of snow and rain, crowned by the fleeting intensity of sunset. Yosemite National Park, California.
Towards the end of the Pleistocene, from –110 000 to – 10 000 years, glaciers became powerful agents of erosion as they progressed with unrelenting slowness. Rocks were shaved off. Large valleys, such as that of Yosemite, were carved; these were made up of flat floors and straight sides.
Marlboro Point is located in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In the early moments of dawn, a grandiose vista offers itself to us. The first rays of light reveal the minarets, those sandstone arrows and walls formed by the erosive strength of the sinuous Colorado River.
Liquid water is one of the major characteristics of our little planet. It feels like such a usual occurrence that we often don’t even notice it. And yet, each landscape bears its mark.
The very first glimmers of sun ignite the steep cliff of Toroweap Point, at the heart of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Eight hundred metres below, the Colorado River glides in silence.
“If human beings tried hard enough, they could remake the Parthenon ten times. But they could never recreate a single canyon, the latter having been moulded by millennia of patient erosion, in which sun, wind and water combined their efforts”. Jean Dorst, biologist.
The Bentonite Hills are round and multi-coloured. They are composed of bentonite, a type of clay derived from volcanic ash. These cinders repeatedly descended upon the Four Corners region in the Mesozoic era. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
For most of its history, the Earth was an immense expanse of land devoid of any elevation. From – 260 to – 245 million years, a monotone and flat immensity extended from present-day Russia to America.
Before the Glen Canyon dam was filled, 500 000 tons of sediment and rock debris drifted in the Colorado River every day. The river’s sheer strength led to thick layers of sandstone being slashed. Shapely rock and water formations emerged as a result, such as the near-perfect Horseshoe Bend in Utah.
Water strongly contributes to the alteration of rock. It inserts itself through its mineral network, it pulls rocks away from cliffs and mountains and leads stone matter to fill out pits and valleys. Varying climates finalise the moulding of high ground.
The multi-coloured strata of Navajo sandstone curl in a maze of petrified domes, ridges and waves. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona.
250 million years ago, grounds above water were contained in a single continent, Pangea. As the land mass slowly fragmented, sands and changing winds carved huge dunes on the remaining continental portions from – 190 to – 175 million years.
The ebbing tide progressively uncovers the rocks that have been darkened and grooved by waves on the Anse Source d’Argent beach at La Digue Island.
The granite islands of the Seychelles archipelago are crumb-like parts of the oceanic crust which scattered during Pangea’s fragmentation when the Indian and African tectonic plates deviated.
The storm has just passed through when a rainbow appears over Balanced Rock, under the stifling sun and in an environment saturated with humidity. The sandstone rock formation stands at the heart of the Arches National Park in Utah.
Water isn’t the only factor of erosion. Tectonic movements fracture the earth’s crust; heat modifies the physical and chemical conditions of minerals, wind removes topsoil and abrades elevated land.
The Skjálfandafljót River races through the central Icelandic plateaus before plunging in Aldeyjarfoss over a rocky escarpment in a thunderous roar. The flow reveals basalt with columnar jointing.
Water, the source of life, consists in the largest annual displacement of a chemical substance on the Earth’s surface. It is also an erosive force under all types of climate.
Parinacota is a potentially active volcano, with its highest point reaching 6 240 metres. It is located in the heart of the Andes near the border between Bolivia and Chile. With its neighbour Pomerape, it forms the Nevados de Payachatas, named after Ancient gods revered by Altiplano residents.
Parasitic cones, petrified lava, lakes filling gaps carved by previous flows, and fertile land – these all testify to the fact that landscapes are marked by the traces of past volcanic activity.
The Valle de la Luna appears on the edge of the huge salar de Atacama in Chile. The Licancabur volcano hovers over these vast badlands which are composed of salt, sand, and gypsum. They were overturned and straightened by the upheaval of the Andes.
The progressive uplift of the South American continental plate led to the highest tectonic elevation known. A height difference of 14 kilometres exists between the summits of the Andean mountain range and their roots, which drop 7 000 metres deep into the oceanic trench.
In the western part of Madagascar, an incredible stone forest lies protected in the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. It forms a maze of sharp limestone blades that are characteristic of karstic plateaus.
Such sharp elevations occur only when very specific conditions are fulfilled: the rock must be fractured vertically, thus allowing water that is filled with carbonic acid to dissolve the limestone, widen the cracks and dig a labyrinth of underground galleries.
Clays were hollowed out by rain, leading the finer elements to fall. Zones that were protected by a “hat” – a block carved out of a solid layer of sandstone – were progressively cleared. This is how these “fairy chimneys” formed at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
“Land elevations are the Earth’s bouts of fever” says Patrick De Wever, geologist. For most of its history, the Earth was a monotonous flat surface on which rivers and waterways erred.
Fog has formed overnight above the Benguela cold current and has invaded the Sossusvlei coastal dunes in Namibia. The mist dissolves quickly as the sun gently caresses the morning sky.
The most ancient of deserts is also filled with paradox: the highest temperatures on record take place in the austral winter, the air above the coastal dunes is filled with marine humidity, sand is moistened by the morning dew; and yet, vegetation does not take root.
The meandering Þjórsá River contains fire sparks that are reddened by iron oxide. It is also interlaced with bright green ribbons that were stripped of decomposed organic compounds lost to erosion. The river snakes through the ashen plains of southern Iceland.
During the long periods of time in which the Earth was a vast flat surface, rivers and waterways rumbled lazily while making deposits of alluvium suffused with iron pigments.
Icebergs have detached from the Breiðamerkurjökull ice edge. They fill the Jökulsárlón laguna in southern Iceland before ending in the sea, deflected by storms.
Ever since its very first glaciation, our planet went through many other periods of great calm. The Earth’s overall temperature gradually decreased when no major volcanic episodes occurred. The planet then enveloped in a shield of ice, a phenomenon known as the “snowball”.
After having been buffeted by the ocean and weathered and polished by waves, the iceberg becomes a smaller piece of ice and ends on the southern Icelandic coast’s dark shoreline, lit by the brightness of the winter sun.
Throughout the Earth’s history, continental climates were the result of land being contained in supercontinents. Cold winters fostered the creation of ice caps. When lands started dislocating, oceanic climates emerged. The latter contributed to the melting of ice and to the rise of sea levels.
Narrow leaves are covered in soft silvery-grey fibres that are meant to retain traces of humidity. The name “silversword” was given to this rare plant which only grows on the slopes of the Haleakalā volcano, on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago.
The Hawaiian Islands have been isolated from continents for over 70 million years. The area is therefore known for its high number of endemic plants. These species evolved without external influences, allowing them to adapt perfectly to their environment.
Life delicately returns among the whitened skeletons of trees. Ash and acid rain asphyxiated the forest during the eruption of the Tolbachik volcano in the Kamtchatka peninsula in the Russian Far East.
After each mass extinction – triggered by meteor impacts or by volcanic paroxysmal episodes – life has always managed to spring forward, evolving once more based on the remaining surviving species.
A desert helianthus appears in the Artists Palette badlands. Its flowering foreshadows exceptional blooming in Death Valley National Park, California. This phenomenon is more intense certain years, such as during the El Niño climatic anomaly.
The marvellous ways in which life forms adapt: as skilled manipulators, flowers use seduction to ensure their reproduction. Armed with beautiful colours, interesting shapes and subtle perfumes, they entice the animals that will transport their pollen – butterflies, bees and other creatures.
Cacti, such as these beavertail cacti, live at a slower pace for a good part of the year. Yet they also contribute to the flowering of semi-arid regions in the western United States. Joshua Tree National Park, California.
The morphology of plants has changed due to the diversity of ecosystems and climatic variabilities. In desert areas, species develop thorns or glossy sheens to halt water evaporation.
Triodia, also known as spinifex, is a type of grass that is endemic to Australia and that grows abundantly there. Its leaves are sharp, hard and filled with sticky resin. They grow in thick and dense tufts.
Vegetation has ingenuously adapted throughout time and according to its evolution. Leaves found protection by occasionally transforming into thorns to avoid arousing a herbivore’s appetite.
The bold green tones make us think of a soft carpet of moss. But when one touches the llareta plant, it is as rough as rock. Its short and tough leaves and its tightly arranged branches are designed to resist cold temperatures, dry air and intense sun radiations.
Lauca National Park, Chile.
The first truly terrestrial plants were mosses which still belonged to humid environments. They appeared 440 million years ago. It took a long time for them to break away from humid settings, since they were conditioned by an aquatic mode of reproduction.
Macarenia clavigera is an aquatic plant tied to a Columbian mountain range. It is anchored to the bottom of the Caño Cristales river and changes hues: from green, it turns to yellow, from yellow to light pink, all the way to bright fuchsia. While it is solidly hooked to the black rocks of the “Five-colour River”, it also mingles with the water’s amber undulations, the foliage’s green reflections and the blue sky.
The plant’s pigmentation protects it from sun radiations, from the bottom to the very end of its leaves, just like a sun-blocking screen.
The Tundra, which is usually austere, transforms into an ocean of fire during the short Arctic autumn. It sits at the feet of the blue Vatnajökull ice cap in Iceland.
Tropical vegetation diminished following the most recent glaciations. To survive in the cold, trees invented autumn; leaves were shed in the coldest period of the year to limit the loss of liquid when water supplies could not be renewed.
A few drops fall on the polished and hairy leaves of aquatic ferns, also known as eared watermoss (Salvinia auriculata), during morning rainfall in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil.
Microalgae – and, later, algae – were the starting points of a process that has led to the opulence of plants covering many ecosystems around the globe today. Red in darker waters and green in shallow pools, algae eventually anchored themselves to rocks and gave birth to a wide range of plants. This took place over 1.2 billion years ago.
The Pantanal wetlands sit between Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. This territory alone represents 3% of the planet’s humid zones. Its floodplains are covered in water lilies that bloom at night.
Over the course of time, flowers and pollinators ingeniously adjusted to each other. But, while bats are attracted to the nocturnal blossoms of certain flowers, water remains the ideal pollen conduit for aquatic plants.
Quiver trees, or kokerbooms, are part of the aloe family. In Namibia, the San hunter-gatherers removed the fibrous pulp of these thick-leaved plants and used the branches as quivers.
The main focus of a plant’s life has always been to search for light. Before the advent of rigid trunks, plants created vessels to transport water and to pursue their ascent. Hairs –which later became roots – first held the plant to its substrate.
The Epupa River’s “leaping waters” flow between the baobab trees. This green haven extends like a welcome break between the deserts of Namibia and Angola.
During the Devonian, from – 417 to – 350 million years, important changes profoundly altered the vegetable kingdom. One of them was the appearance of wood, a magical substance that could stiffen tissue.
In the tropical forest of the Boca da Onça National Park in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, highly mineralized waterfalls break the sweltering heat. Terraced mounds of calcareous tufa are formed.
Primary Forest were composed of ferns, giant horsetail and lycopodium plants that resembled palm trees. They reached their peak in the carboniferous era, from – 359 to
–299 million years. The remains of these plants are now enclosed in the thick veins of coal.
The fog hovers over the maple trees in the Gotjawal forest; it clings to the slopes of the Hallasan volcano, on Jeju Island in South Korea, just like a paint brush soaked in water would glide on grainy paper.
Flowering plants, or angiosperms, (literally meaning “seeds encased in a container”) include all plants that bear fruit, as well as broadleaf trees. They appeared 140 million years ago and quickly replaced the gymnosperms (plants which have a naked ovule), mainly represented by conifers.
The sun appears over the Atherton Tableland and penetrates the humid forest of Queensland, Australia. A sudden outburst of diffused light can be seen, before the fog disperses in the morning heat.
The world's oldest forest originated between – 125 and – 200 million years. It has since been fragmented by agriculture and the wood industry. Biologists worry that the forest will disappear before we can learn to know it. And with it, hundreds of animal species.
The fleeting evening light ignites the dream-like Anse Lazio beach before the arrival of a new tropical storm. Praslin Island in the Seychelles.
Residents and non-profit organisations are attempting to reforest "Palm Island" after over two centuries of soil erosion and forest fires. The French explorer Lazare Picault fell in love with the island's luxuriant environment in the eighteenth century.
Hoh Rain Forest is at the heart of the Olympic National Park in the state of Washington, in the north west of the United States. It is one of the last temperate rain forests in the mid-latitudes.
Botanists have been surprised by the staggering speed with which flowering plants have occupied the Earth as a whole. 90% of current vegetable species are included in this group, with an estimated count of 350 000 varieties, not including the ones that are discovered by scientists each year.
In Daintree Forest, in northern Queensland, Australia, fan palms deploy their wide foliage in the tropical underbrush in an attempt to capture rays of sunlight and a few drops of rain.
The engine behind plant diversification isn't based on fighting or on competing species. Instead, it depends on mutual help, on solidarity and on a symbiosis with the animal kingdom, since one life form could not live without the other.
Tropical Forests are unaware of autumn. A single morning ray manages to pierce through the thick fog. It colours a part of the Daintree tropical forest, as the Mossman river flows through a maze of granite blocks.
Rainforests are the richest plant formations in terms of biodiversity, both for fauna and for tree species – several hundreds of tree species are represented on one hectare of land in the rainforest against ten in temperate environments.
The Cheonjiyeon waterfall on Jeju Island in South Korea reveals the columnar jointing of a thick lava flow. Reeds and ferns find cavities in the rocks and benefit from the surrounding humidity to grow.
“The first molecule of life is water! Because water is essential to life. Everything stemmed from there”. Gilles Boeuf biologist.
Hardy Reef, seen from above. The Great Barrier Reef is over 2 600 kilometres long and lies off the shores of Queensland in Australia all the way to the islands of New Guinea in the north. It is the largest structure made by living organisms.
The very first animal creatures appeared in the oceans 800 million years ago in the form of sponges. These were actually considered to be aquatic plants for a long time. Their descendants are sea fans and corals.
The world's biggest fish appears under the water's surface and is escorted by remoras. The whale shark has a flat head, wide-set eyes and a laidback look. It only eats plankton, krill and small prey.
Plankton life continued to diversify and evolve. 530 million years ago, the ancestors of fish did not have vertebrae or jaws. Instead, they possessed an internal cartilage frame which sharks and rays still carry to this day.
While the newly born leatherback turtle has barely broken out of its egg and left the sand nest, it is already drawn to the glistening waves. It reaches the water and disappears into the unknown. Will it return to its birthplace one day and tread the beaches of Hattes in French Guiana again?
Tetrapods were the first vertebrates with two pairs of legs who came out of the water 365 million years ago. Their single obsession consisted in staying hydrated. They invented the amnion, a membrane in which the embryo could develop in an aqueous environment, thus avoiding dehydration and collisions.
Yacare caimans scramble to find the few water holes that the dry season has spared in the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil. Fights over the last of the fish can be fierce.
In the Mesozoic era, from – 250 to – 66 million years, reptiles reigned the animal kingdom. They bore crests, horns or feathers; they were bipeds or quadrupeds, carnivores or herbivores, giants or the size of a sparrow. Dinosaurs, those “terrible reptiles” colonized all of the ecosystems of the planet.
A rhinoceros beetle escapes a brush fire on the outskirts of the Guianese forest and lands on a cecropia leaf.
Arthropods, insects, spiders, centipedes, scorpions and crustaceans were privileged enough to rise out of water before vertebrates 450 million years ago. They were aided by plants, which provided them with enough food and energy.
The Megasoma acteon, a beetle the size of a hand, arrives whirring through the trees. It lands on a liana in the humid underbrush of the Guianese tropical rain forest.
Arthropods represent 80% of the known animal species today. They form the most diversified phylum in the animal kingdom.
A small darkling beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) climbs up a dune in Namibia. It points its elytra toward the sea mist. A few precious drops of dew reach the beetle’s mouth, thus satiating the creature for the day.
Arthropods are protected by an exoskeleton, whether they live in the poles or in the tropics. As a result, they have invested the highest mountains, the most arid deserts and the deepest abysses.
The Smilisca phaeota is an arboreal frog; a dark mask elongates its eyes. Still dizzy from its nocturnal amorous embraces, this male individual has been caught by an arboreal snake. For hours, the amphibian resists by swelling like a ball, but the reptile manages to swallow it progressively.
In terms of evolution and natural selection, scientists believe that predators co-evolve with their prey. With time, hunters learn to thwart their victims’ adaptive strategies, which would explain why some predators are extremely specialised.
This macaw is dressed in shades of azure, emerald and vermillion. It watches over its nest from the edge of the Buraco das Araras sinkhole in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. Approximately 30 pairs of these magnificent birds have invested the area.
It took a single man's unrelenting willpower to clear what had become a huge illegal landfill and to plant the macaws' favourite trees. This encouraged the birds to nest peacefully in the cliffs' cavities.
The interior delta formed by the Pantanal wetlands fills up during the rainy season. Fish migrate by crossing the flooded plain and returning to breeding sites, which are scrutinised by birds. Jabirus and cormorants depart from Rio Negro after having fished in the morning.
Which animal flew first? Was it an arboreal dinosaur who had acquired the ability to parachute safely to the ground? Or was it a runner who moved appendages that were already equipped with feathers, thus allowing it to accelerate and take off?
A black vulture glides through the sprays of one of the many waterfalls of Sierra do Bodoquena in the Bonca da Onça National Park, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.
The progressive evolution of wings allowed birds to colonise the heavens, as they glided sumptuously in the sky. They also used their aerodynamic instruments to swoop in on prey from above.
In October, wild swans leave their homeland, the great plains of Siberia, to escape temperatures as low as – 50 °C. After having covered 8 000 kilometres and flown eighteen hours without stopping, the birds land in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island. Thousands of swans are set to spend the winter in a slightly warmer climate, since temperatures never fall below – 30°C here!
The feather is a magical substance and performs many functions. It is a fabulous thermal insulator, which is further reinforced when the bird ruffles its plumage. It is also light and incredibly resistant, and its colours can serve to camouflage the animal or to enhance its seductive display.
In the summer, grizzlies go back to the rivers and lakes of Katmaï National Park in Alaska. There, salmons swim in close rows and return to their spawning grounds after having left the ocean. The plantigrades settle in the swirling currents, they are focused... fishing has begun.
Sixty five million years ago, a meteorite measuring ten kilometres in diameter landed in north-western Mexico and provoked the fifth great extinction: 75 % of species disappeared. Mammals took advantage of this environmental vacuum and took over the Earth in less than 10 million years.
After having roamed for months on the pack ice that closes the Hudson Bay in Canada, polar bears touch ground. The cubs learn to hunt and fight.
The polar bear is the master of the Arctic since it does not have a natural predator. Despite the reduced surface area of ice in the summer and the thinning of older layers, the bear population seems to have stabilised. For how long?
In the 1800s, an estimated 80 million bison roamed the United States. This was before the American army planned their eradication in order to expedite the elimination of Native Americans.
In 1875, only 600 bison were left. There are now 4 000 individuals in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Australian sea lions only reproduce on the southern and western coastlines of the continent-island. An estimated 12 000 animals now live in these areas, and the species is considered to be highly endangered.
Several characteristics remind us of the past land life of marine mammals: they nurse the young, their skeletons still bear traces of former terrestrial members, and they engage in aerial breathing which forces them to come out of the water regularly.
In Round Island, off the shores of Alaska, walruses spread out in the sun all day after having fished in the sea. The heat helps to restore the blood circulation in their thick skins.
The species whose characteristics allow them to survive in their environment are prone to reproduce more easily, unlike other species who disappear. Over the course of generations, this mechanism explains how animals adapt to their environment. This is how natural selection works, and it is at the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Animals have been alerted by a noise or a suspicious smell and run frantically. Dust rises and thickens the early evening sky, just as a solitary lioness steps forward to drink peacefully.
In the mid twentieth century, 200 000 African lions were estimated to roam the continent. There are now only 20 000, and half of them could be wiped off of the African map within twenty years. Such a disappearance is due to the fact that their land is being increasingly cultivated, their preys are slaughtered, and their bones and skins are used for Asian remedies.
Two male elephants are white with mud. They dry themselves by pressing their foreheads together. Their silent dialogue lasts hours before they separate to drink. Etosha National Park, Namibia.
There were 20 million of them before Africa was colonised, 1 million in the 1970s, 352 000 today… According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the African elephant extinction is imminent.
Sifakas are indifferent to the sharp limestone blades and to the acute needles of Tsingy de Bemaraha in Madagascar. These animals (Propithecus) dance across the karst, and are attracted to the leaves and fruits of the surrounding forests.
Primates arrived 35 to 55 million years ago. Humans took their time. The first hominid is 7 million years old, while Homo Sapiens is 200 000 years old. But since the arrival of humans on Earth, many factors have contributed to destroying the world’s natural habitats: climate change, bulging demographics, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Humans are setting the scene for a sixth extinction. How much time is left to avoid such a terrible scenario?