An ariel photo of two polar bears resting on a rock in clear water

Cool time © Martin Gregus

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: love is in the air

Can animals fall in love? How does procreation work in the vast ocean? Discover the beauty of animal attraction with Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

From courting couples to spawning seascapes, and everything in between, wildlife photography offers you a closer look at some of the world's most elaborate, impressive, and sometimes dangerous mating behaviours.

The intimate touch - Shane Kalyn

Scientists think that ravens mate for life. This pair had exchanged gifts – moss, twigs and small stones – to strengthen their relationship or 'pair bond'.

A photo of two ravens touching beaks

Shane Kalyn © The intimate touch

Shane had also seen this pair preening and serenading each other with soft warbling sounds.

So as not to disturb them, he lay on the frozen ground to piece this shot together, contrasting their dark iridescent plumage against the white midwinter snow.

Flash dancing - Angel Fitor

Cichlids are known for their elaborate mating behaviours, and it took this male around five hours to build a sand bower – a nest for spawning – with its mouth.

A fish swims above a mound of sand

Flash-dancing © Angel Fitor

Once complete, the cichlid performed a vigorous, shimmering dance in the morning light to attract mates.

Fertilisation takes place inside the female's mouth where she will carry the eggs for about three weeks as the fry develop. Once they are ready to swim, the fry are released, but may return to their parent's mouth when they need rest or protection.

The Happy Couple - Jaime Culebras

Jamie was working with a conservation group in Colombia when he came across this couple of harlequin toads. 

Two toads sit on top of one another on a branch

The Happy Couple © Jaime Culebras

The toads are in amplexus – a mating behaviour – and they may have remained in this state for weeks. In this position, the male fertilises the eggs as they are released from the female's body.

While many species of harlequin toad have become endangered or extinct in recent years, due in part to a fungal disease that is rife among the toads, increased land protection and monitoring have improved this toad's chances of survival.

The Art of Conception - Stefan Christmann

The pinky hue of an Antarctic sunset, ushering in another long winter, was the perfect backdrop for this courting couple. 

Two penguins mate in the Antarctic

The Art of Conception © Stefan Christmann

Emperor penguins form a new bond each year and remain monogamous for the season. Stefan watched as the male 'struggled to keep his balance' while the female lay on the ice, signalling that she was ready.

Following this mating ritual the females will spend around two months at sea feeding, while the males care for the eggs. Once the egg is hatched, parenting duties are shared until the chick is old enough to be left in a crèche with the other young.

Head to head - Stefano Unterthiner

Two male reindeer clash antlers in a battle to win the chance to breed during the rutting season in Svalbard, Norway. 

Two reindeer clash antlers

Head to head © Stefano Unterthiner

As Stefano watched them both fight, he felt immersed in 'the smell, the noise. The fatigue and the pain'.

This subspecies of reindeer is becoming affected by climate change as increased rainfall freezeson the ground, preventing access to plants that would otherwise be accessible under soft snow.

Creation - Laurent Ballesta

Laurent's once-in-a-lifetime photo of three male groupers rushing to fertilise a cloud of eggs was the winner of the fifty-seventh Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

A trio of groupers fertilise a cloud of eggs

Creation © Laurent Ballesta

The mass spawning of camouflage groupers happens once a year around the July full Moon, when approximately 18,000 of the reef-dwelling fish gather to procreate.

The changing tide of the full Moon creates optimal mating conditions, as the strong current can pull the fertilised eggs out of the lagoon to the relative safety of the open ocean.

While huge spawning events like this are key to the grouper's survival, their predictability, based on lunar cycles, makes the fish easy targets for predators including humans and sharks.

Paired-up Puffins - Evie Easterbrook

Evie had always longed to see puffins, so when her school broke up for the holidays, her family took a two-day trip to see the birds in their natural habitat.

A portrit of two puffins

Paired-up Puffins © Evie Easterbrook

Atlantic puffins develop their signature black 'eyeliner' and brightly coloured bills during the mating season to attract potential mates. Generally, puffins will form pairs for several years, some have even been known to mate for life.

Climate change is having a negative impact on puffin populations worldwide, often reducing the amount of food available for them.

A Swirl of Rays - Duncan Murrell

Duncan was fortunate to catch this rare mating display on camera when he was snorkelling above a trio of spinetail devil rays.

Three spinetail devli rays circle eachother

A Swirl of Rays © Duncan Murrell

In his photo two males can be seen competing for the attention of a female, forming a striking pattern with their bodies.

Spinetail devil rays only have one pup each time they breed, and populations are struggling to keep up with the rate at which they are being fished.

Sinuous Moves - Lorenzo Shoubridge

A pair of courting adders sway gently among the foliage, their heads pressed together cheek to cheek. 

Two adders rest cheek to cheek among the grass

Sinuous Moves © Lorenzo Shoubridge

Lorenzo watched quietly from a distance so as not to disturb the couple as they restlessly rose up and down, constantly switching positions and occasionally vibrating their tails.

If mating is successful, the female will give birth to up to 18 live young about three months later.