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The Best Science Photos of 2017

Science is stunning

Light Pillars

(Image credit: Darlene Tanner/ ZUMA)

The year was full of exciting, jaw-dropping photos related to science. From adorable animals — like a 4-month-old gorilla and a pair of nuzzling orange-beaked puffins — to stunning pictures of our amazing planet, long-extinct creatures like the world's largest shark, here are the science photos that stood out in 2017.

Plankton Light Up

Alyn Wallace captured this image of bioluminescent plankton at Three Cliffs Bay near Swansea on June 19, 2017.

(Image credit: Alyn Wallace/Caters news)

Otherworldly blue light dances in Three Cliffs Bay near Swansea, Wales in a gorgeous image taken June 18. Landscape photographer Alyn Wallace captured this view under a star-spangled sky. The blue is created by bioluminescent plankton, which sparkle when disturbed by currents or splashes. [Shimmering Sea: Why a Beautiful Blue Glow Lit Up the Coast of Wales]

Cyclone Licks the Coast

An instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of a curl of moist air licking the coast of Portugal on July 16, 2017.

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Like a tentative cat, a July cyclone reaches out to taste the coast of Portugal in this satellite image released by NASA. A low-pressure system pulled coastal moisture from over the ocean toward the warm, dry atmosphere of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite captured the swirling clouds. [Cyclone 'Licks' Portugal Coast in Gorgeous Space Image]

Deadly Beauty

Matty Smith won Best of Show in an underwater photography contest for this shot of a Pacific Man-of-War (<i>Physalia utriciulus</i>) floating in the darkness in Bushrangers Bay, New South Wales, Australia.

(Image credit: Matty Smith, Ocean Art Competition 2016)

"Blue Lasso," by Matty Smith, won the 2017 Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition's "Best in Show" prize for its stark depiction of a Pacific man-of-war photographed against a night sky in New South Wales, Australia. Man-of-Wars are colonial animals made up of four separate types of polyps, which are all unique organisms of their own that function together as a single creature. [Dramatic Man-of-War Takes Top Ocean Art Photography Prize]

Teeth in the Deep

The largest shark to ever stalk the seas, Megalodon, snaps at a potential prey in this artist's conception of the extinct beast.

(Image credit: Alberto Collareta/Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.01.001))

The ocean's horrors come to life in this artist's impression of a megalodon on the hunt. The largest shark that ever lived went extinct about 2.5 million years ago, and a study published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology suggested that the reason had to do with a lack of prey for these gigantic beasts. []

Rocky Mountain High

European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet captured this photo of the Rocky Mountains from the International Space Station on Dec. 25, 2016.

(Image credit: ESA/NASA)

At the very close of 2016, the International Space Station whizzed over the Rocky Mountains and captured a fantastic, snow-swept view. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet was on hand to snap a photograph of the tops of the peaks slicing through a blanket of clouds.

Puffin Love

Monogamy may seem rare in the animal kingdom, but orange-beaked puffins pair off for the long-term.

(Image credit: Ben Dean)

A pair of orange-beaked puffins nuzzle in this moody black-and-white image. A study released in April found that orange-beaked puffins, which form long-term monogamous relationships, stick close together during their annual winter migrations, a strategy that probably allows them to coordinate their return to the breeding colony in Wales each spring. [Puffin Couples Stay Close During 'Winter Break']

Pyro Clouds

(Image credit: Greg Vitalich)

The Thomas Fire in California, which is now considered the largest wildfire in the state’s history, created this massive gray cloud over Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties on Dec. 10. Called a pyrocumulus cloud, the puffball is a cumulus cloud that formed due to the hot air and smoke released by the fire. "Pyrocumulus clouds form when wildfires burn hot enough to generate very strong upward motion, which we call updrafts," Nick Nauslar, a research scientist for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies/Storm Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Live Science at the time. The gray color comes from the smoke in the air. [Read more about the amazing pyrocumulus cloud.]

Sweet Mama

A female gorilla and a 4-month-old baby named Kabila (after the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

(Image credit: © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

This photo of a 4-month-old baby gorilla and her mother is a bittersweet warning of what the planet has to lose. In January, researchers warned in the journal Science Advances that 60 percent of primate species worldwide are in danger of extinction, and 75 percent are seeing population declines. Some are already on the brink: The Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) from China is down to only about 25 individuals left in total. [More Than Half of All Primates Threatened with Extinction]

Walking Polymer

(Image credit: Bart van Overbeeke)

A 'walking' polymer inches like a caterpillar in a time-lapse image released in June. This polymer is made of light-activated materials and inches along when exposed to a light source. It can even carry small objects (small grains of sand) or push items larger than itself uphill. [Light Makes New Material Creep Like a Caterpillar]

Robber Fly

The tiny robber fly reaches about 6 millimeters in length, about the size of a grain of rice.

(Image credit: Thomas Shahan)

What big eyes you have! This robber fly is a mere 6 millimeters in length, but its huge, faceted eyes give it some of the best vision among insects, researchers reported in March. Using their keen eyesight, the flies can capture prey as far as 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) away. [Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second]

Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.