Shocked Squirrel and Shy Owl Shine in Wildlife Comedy Photos

A photo of a squirrel looking positively appalled won three prizes in a contest celebrating hilarity in wildlife photos. (Image credit: Mary McGowan/Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards)

Animal subjects delivered comedy gold in photos that were recently honored by the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, and a very surprised-looking squirrel stood out, earning its photographer the title of Comedy Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018.

Thousands of photographers submitted their amusing animal images to this year's contest, and the winners were announced yesterday (Nov. 15) on the competition's website.

The photo "Shocked Squirrel," captured by American photographer Mary McGowan, received not only the top prize of best overall photo, but also nabbed the Affinity Photo People's Choice Award and Alex Walker's Serian Creatures of the Land Award, contest officials said in a statement. [See the Hilarious Photos Taken by Contest Finalists]

McGowan's photo shows a wide-eyed and open-mouthed squirrel holding up both paws; the pose, interpreted through a "human" lens, makes the animal appear to be responding in horror to something appalling that it desperately wanted to stop.

Other notable images, selected from 41 finalists, include a barely visible owl demurely peeking over a hill, a "smiling" blue shark and a trampolining fox.

Whether or not nonhuman animals have a sense of humor is a subject of much debate, because humor and animal behavioral motivations can be tricky to define. On one hand, animals other than humans generally lack the cognitive and language capabilities to create or appreciate comedy in puns, ironic twists or wordplay. However, certain primates — such as chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives — have been found to make "laugh faces" and produce sounds that resemble laughter, Live Science has previously reported.

But even if animals aren't displaying or experiencing emotions related to humor, their expressions or behavior — when captured in photos at just the right moment — can still appear hilarious to the human eye, though the comedy is unintentional.

While the photography contest showcases humor and silliness in wildlife, there is also a serious side to it. The competition collaborates with the Born Free Foundation, an animal conservation organization, and together they hope to inspire people to protect wild animals and their habitats "through a positive and funny message," according to the statement.

All of the winning photos of 2018 can be viewed on the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards website.

Originally published on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.