Check out some images from the 2022 Nikon Small World Photography Contest

Life is beautiful on all scales, from the largest to the smallest. Sometimes this splendor is hidden under literal scales.

A fascinating peek under the developing scales on the hand of an embryonic Madagascar giant day gecko (Phelsuma grandis) won first place in the 2022 Nikon Small World photomicrography competition. The winning image, assembled from hundreds of images taken over two days with a confocal microscope, was produced by researchers from the University of Geneva Grigorii Timin and Michel Milinkovitch. The duo studies the genetics and physics of embryonic development.

The hand is artificially colored to show budding nerves in cyan and collagen-containing structures in a range of oranges and yellows. Collagen is a building block of life, says Milinkovitch. Knowing where collagen is found can help researchers better understand how bodies and tissues grow.

The parts of the bones that have started to calcify shine brightest in the image, Timin says. Developing tendons and ligaments stretch like orange branches. Blood cells form clusters or line up inside new blood vessels at the gecko’s fingertips.

The image showcases beauty of all sizes, says Milinkovitch. The picture is “beautiful as a hand, you see this beautiful pattern of the fingers. Then you zoom in, you see the spongy bones. And you zoom in, you see the tendons. And you zoom in, and you see the fibers coming from the tendons. Then you zoom in and see the blood cells.

The gecko photo is one of 92 incredible images recognized in this year’s competition. The winners of the 48th annual competition were announced on October 12. Here are some of our other favorites.

Have milk?

magenta and yellow colored ball-like structures clustered around a blood vessel, colored yellow, against a black background
Yellow and magenta stained muscle cells wrap around milk-producing structures in breast tissue, shown at 40x magnification. The yellow branch is a blood vessel that supplies the hormone oxytocin when a baby suckles.Caleb Dawson/Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Nikon Small World

From a distance, this photograph may look like a bunch of grapes. But each orb is a sprawling cluster of cells inside breast tissue.

Cancer immunologist Caleb Dawson at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Australia, took thousands of images using a confocal microscope to see tiny muscle cells wrapping around milk-producing spheres. He used dyes and antibodies to mark cells yellow and magenta in this runner-up image.

The cells respond to the hormone oxytocin, Dawson says. Oxytocin is released during breastfeeding and helps extract milk from the spheres, called alveoli. Such images of lactating breast tissue can help researchers understand how immune cells keep breast tissue and the babies they can feed healthy.

Snuffed out candle

a 2.5x photo of unburned pieces of carbon billowing away from an extinguished candle
Chunks of unburned carbon drift away from an extinguished candle in this photograph, magnified 2.5 times its normal size.Ole Bielfeldt, Nikon Small World

Ole Bielfeldt had to be quick to catch the last breath of an extinguished candle.

Candle wax is made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms, which mostly convert to carbon dioxide when ignited. But not all of these hydrocarbons burn, instead accumulating as soot on surfaces near the spark plug. “When the flame goes out, the glowing wick has enough heat to break up the wax molecules for a while, but not enough to burn the carbon,” says Bielfeldt, a photographer in Cologne, Germany. “So you get a smoke trail until it cools.”

Using a fast shutter speed and bright LED light, Bielfeldt managed to capture these drifting unburned carbon particles, earning sixth place.

iridescent slime mold

two bright blue balls that look like crinkled pom poms, belonging to a slime mold, held aloft by what looks like a dark brown base, magnified 10x
This close-up view of slime mold on a leaf is magnified 10 times its normal size. Most slime mussels have smooth heads, but this pair features what look like crinkle pom poms.Alison Pollack, Nikon Small World

Hidden on decaying leaves and logs in humid forests are tiny works of art like these Lamprodermia slime molds.

On a dappled October day, photographer Alison Pollack of San Anselmo, California, saw a flickering leaf as she dug into a pile of leaves. After taking the leaf home and looking at it under a microscope, she was overwhelmed by the crinkled buds and the iridescence of the slime mold. Some 40 hours of work and 147 combined images later, Pollack had captured a striking snapshot that she loves to anthropomorphize as a nurturing relationship: parent and child, two lovers or brother and sister. The photo got fifth place in the competition.

Most slime molds have smooth heads, which release spores into the environment to reproduce. This pair may have dried out too quickly, stunting their development and leaving their buds wrinkly, says Pollack. But that’s okay, “because the texture to me is just gorgeous.”

A deadly predator

the face of a tiger beetle holding a fly under its chin.  The beetle is depicted in bright greens and yellows, with huge dark eyes
A tiger beetle magnified 3.7 times holds a fly under its chin, which creates depressions in the fly’s eyes.Murat Oztürk, Nikon Small World

Everyone fears the predatory tiger beetle, especially this poor fly.

Murat Öztürk from Ankara, Turkey, clinched 10th place in this year’s competition with a stunning – and unsettling – snapshot of a tiger beetle using its mandibles to swat a fly through its eyes.

Tiger Beetle (Cicindelinae) run after their prey so quickly that the insects become temporarily blind. The photographed beetle reportedly stopped several times to orient itself to determine where the fly was, eventually catching its meal. Thanks to the beetle’s strong and sharp jaws, “the chances of survival of creatures captured by this insect are very low,” says Öztürk.

Close up of coral

a coral polyp, shown fluorescent in blue, pink and purple, resembling a ring of teeth or similar structures, against a black background
This unique coral polyp, magnified 20 times, naturally fluoresces in a brilliant range of blues, pinks and purples when exposed to certain types of light.Brett M. Lewis/Queensland University of Technology, Nikon Small World

At Opal Reef off Australia, some cauliflower corals (Pocillopora verrucosa) polyps appear green. But the same organism is transformed when observed under a microscope in the laboratory.

To reveal the individual cells of the polyp, marine scientist Brett Lewis of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, assembled more than 60 images taken over 36 hours. Coral naturally diffuses a mixture of blues, purples and pinks when exposed to different wavelengths of light. Algae living inside the polyp appear orange or pink, while coral tissue glows blue. The image won 12th place in the competition.

One amazing thing about the photo, Lewis says, is that in some areas the algae cells glow through a light blue haze. This is because the coral tissue is transparent; algae give coral its color.

Insights into coral’s internal manufacturing can help scientists understand its biology, Lewis says. His work, for example, aims to understand how young polyps build strong foundations when they attach to a surface – an important step in building or restoring coral reefs.

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