As photographer Mark Cowan traveled down the Amazon, studying reptile and amphibian diversity with the Herpetology Division at the University of Michigan, he captured a phenomenal photo that is as visually stunning as it is educational. The image showcases a lounging caiman with a vibrant crown of butterflies. Biologically, the winged creatures need salt to survive, and the water that collects on the caiman’s skin is a key provider of those minerals. Many other animals must rely on similar commensalism in order to receive the proper nutrients. While the caiman doesn’t benefit nutritionally from the relationship, his coy expression shows that he doesn’t seem to mind the attention.
Cowan’s Butterflies and Caiman received a Special Commendation in the Ecology and Environmental Science Category of the 2016 Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition due to the unique organization of the butterflies. Look closely—you’ll see that three species of butterflies are present and each species clings to its own kind.