The best microscope footage of the year reveals the ferocious, trippy, and sometimes disgusting world of creatures too small for us to see (Aria Bendix)
Nikon small world video
Nikon small world video

Philippe Laissue/Nikon Small World in Motion

  • The Nikon Small World in Motion contest highlights the best microscope videos taken each year.

  • This year's first-place winner is a video of a polyp bursting out of bright green coral like a beating heart.

  • Other winners include videos of a developing mouse embryo and a microorganism that creates a whirling vortex to capture its prey. 

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It's tough to capture the world's tiniest organisms in photos, but it's even tougher to capture footage of them in action. After awarding the best microscope photography of 2019, Nikon has revealed the winners of a second competition, called Nikon Small World in Motion.

The contest was launched in 2012 to showcase time-lapse photography or short clips taken through a microscope. This year's winning videos reveal how life looks beyond what the naked eye can see, giving rare glimpses into the bizarre and fascinating ways microorganisms transform and interact. 

Sometimes, those interactions are vicious, as the 2019 selection shows: The best microscope videos of the year include a parasite emerging from its dead host and two "water bears" eating a member of their own kind.

Take a look. 

The video that took first place in this year's competition shows a polyp bursting out of bright green coral like a beating heart.

Polyps divide into thousands of clones that eventually form coral reefs. The magenta specs represent the algae that's living inside the coral. 

Coral is sensitive to light, so biologist Philippe Laissue had to use a low-light technique when capturing this video. A bright light may have damaged the coral's cellular structure and prevented the algae from undergoing photosynthesis.

"Coral reefs are in alarming decline due to climate change, pollution, and other human-made disturbances," Laissue said in a press release about the footage. "I hope this video shows people the beauty of these organisms while raising awareness of their decline."

The runner-up shows a parasite emerging from its dead host, a marine plankter.

The videographer who captured this footage, Richard Kirby, had to transfer live samples into his laboratory before making the movie.

By the end of the video, the parasite — which resembles a small white bubble — bursts through the plankter (that's the term for an individual organism of plankton) like a squeezed pimple. It's gross, but transfixing. 

A video of a microorganism creating a whirling vortex to capture its prey took third place.

This microorganism, called Stylonychia, is often found in fresh water and sediment. It uses the vibrating hairs on its surface, known as cilia, to motor through the water and trap its next meal. That process is shown in this movie by New York videographers Tommy and Jesse Gunn. 

Tardigrades, also known as "water bears," are shown eating one of their own in this video, which took fourth place.

The eight-legged micro-animals can survive extreme pressures, radiation levels, and temperatures. They were the first animal species from Earth to survive in the harsh vacuum of outer space

Some tardigrades get their food by sucking the fluid from algae and moss, but others (like the ones in this video taken by Hunter Hines at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida) are cannibals. 

The video that took fifth place shows an expanding blue blob — a developing mouse embryo.

Kate McDole and Philipp Keller at Virginia's Howard Hughes Medical Institute captured the embryo as its neural tube — the hollow structure that forms the brain and spinal cord — was folding and closing. When the neural tube doesn't close properly, that can result in birth defects.

Some honorable mentions in this year's competition are too spectacular not to highlight. This reverse time-lapse shows a snowflake turning back into ice.

Snowflakes develop when a water droplet freezes onto a dust particle in the sky, resulting in an ice crystal.

Instead of melting before they disappear, some snowflakes undergo a process called "sublimation," which essentially skips the liquid stage of matter and moves straight from solid to gas. Photographer Caleb Foster's video (above) shows the sublimation process in reverse. 

Foster's still image of a snowflake placed fifth in the Nikon Small World photo contest. 

A trippy video of a developing frog embryo looks like something from outer space.

Videographer Dave Lewis filmed the embryo of a common frog from day 10 to day 13 in its development. Common frogs' embryos are surrounded by a thin jelly capsule.  

This skeleton or "ghost" shrimp is so slender, it can disappear among seaweed.

Skeleton shrimp, also called caprellids, sit motionless in shallow marine environments before sneaking up on their prey (usually protozoa or worms). Videographer Raul Gonzalez captured the creature's subtle movements. 

Gonzalez also filmed hydroids zipping through water in an electric display of light.

Hydroids are one stage in the life cycle of jellyfish-like predators called hydrozoa. Blink and you'll miss the video's mesmerizing end. 

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