A miniature universe exists just beyond our sight — these photos capture it in beautiful, breathtaking detail

Business Insider US
Green scales decorate the eye of an Asian red palm weevil.

The world is not as it seems. Just beyond the limits of our vision exists a miniature universe that beckons to be explored by curious, oversize humans.

Microscopes give us a window into that tiny cosmos, and talented photographers and videographers from around the world have used the tools for centuries to document it in stunning detail. But the equipment and techniques to take microscope photos get better with each passing year.

In honor of the beauty and scientific importance of micrographs, as such pictures are called, Nikon's Small World contest rounds up the best images every year and awards prizes to the top 20 entries. This year marks the 44th competition.

Judging involves pouring over thousands of photos, spotting fakes and non-microscopic images, and then assessing the technique, subject matter, and "wow" factor of the remainder.

What you see above is the first-place image, which was taken by Al Habshi in the United Arab Emirates. It shows the compound eye of a 1.2cm long Asian red palm weevil, also known as Metapocyrtus subquadrulifer, decorated with brilliant green scales.

"Not all people appreciate small species, particularly insects," Habashi said in a press release. "Through photomicrography we can find a whole new, beautiful world which hasn't been seen before. It's like discovering what lies under the ocean's surface."

To see all of the photos the judges picked as winners, keep scrolling.

This cluster of reproductive cells within a fern won second-place.

This is third place: a spittlebug nymph huddling inside a protective coat of bubbles.

Ever seen a peacock feather this close? This is the fourth-place winner.

No. 5: A spider embryo with its surface in pink and microtubules in green.

No. 6: The central part of a primate's retina.

No. 7: A dried human tear drop.

No. 8: A portrait of a very grumpy-looking mango seed weevil, or Sternochetus mangiferae.

No. 9: A security hologram.

No. 10: A pair of stalks containing pollen grains.

No. 11: A human fibroblast, which is vital for the healing of damaged organs, undergoes cell division. (DNA is stained magenta.)

No. 12: Scales on the wing of a Madagascan sunset moth, or Chrysiridia rhipheus.

No. 13: An acorn barnacle.

No. 14: A cell from an African green monkey stained to show its hidden structure.

No. 15: A mite on the back of a honeybee.

No. 16: A mouse's oviduct, which serves as the site of fertilization.

No. 17: Breast tissue, with milk-filled spheres (in red) surrounded by muscle cells that squeeze out milk (in yellow), and immune cells that detect infection (in blue).

No. 18: Crystallized amino acids — the molecules that make up genetic material.

No. 19: Ouch — an Asian hornet with venom on its stinger.

No. 20: The layers of a human retina that enable people to see.

Nikon Small World also recognizes "honorable mentions" that didn't make the top 20, but were close. Here's a Daphnia water flea full of eggs.

Sea angel larvae use cup-shaped mouthparts to feed.

The mold Penicillium vulpinum can grow with surprising symmetry.

The shell of a lychee fruit that's illuminated from within.

The wing of an emperor butterfly.

A cross section of a Bosnian pine tree.


Cloth fabric (in red) and bubbles on the surface of a rock.

A chameleon embryo.

Because there are so many good images, Nikon Small World has a third category called "images of distinction," which follow. The category includes this picture of a Wonga Wonga Vine. It's a popular garden plant found in Australia and the southwestern Pacific region.

Dye-injected nerve cells inside a mouse's brain.

Cyclop, a one-eyed water flea, with eggs.

The surface of aluminum milling grooves.

Part of a brain with nerve cells in red, nuclei in blue, and tau proteins in green.

Sex organs and support structures of moss.

A male wasp from Fiji.

Eek! This is the tip of a tarantula's fang.

A fern's reproductive cells.

The underside of a decaying northern red oak leaf.

Fluorescent protein in a living HeLa cell, which is the oldest human cell line used in scientific research.

A parasitic roundworm.

Bee hairs.

A dried-out drop of blood.

Dandelion pollen.

Golden algae found in freshwater.

A segmented worm with movable hairs.

A mouse embryo stained for motor nerves (in red), sensory nerves (in magenta), and nerve endings (in cyan).

A rotifer — a microscopic aquatic animal — feeding.

A flower in bloom.

A skate fish embryo.

A European earwig.

Almandine, a type of mineral from Hubei, China.

Iron oxide needles on quartz in Ontario, Canada.

Part of a cat's tongue showing blood capillaries.

A fruit fly ovary.

Amino acid crystals.

A hibiscus flower.

A parasitic larva from a wasp family feeds on a spider abdomen.

Human neurons from Parkinson patients.

A ball of plastic microfibers found drifting in the ocean's plankton.

Microtubules in cells from veins of a human's umbilical cord.

Mite on an antenna of a May bug.

The early development phase of a tea-leaved willow's male reproductive part.

Glassworm larva.

A flea.

Marine organisms called dinoflagellates taken from a culture of algae.

A rotting willow leaf.

Neurons of a mouse's inner ear.

A 3D reconstruction of a mouse testicle (in green) and blood vessels (in red).

Skeletal muscle cells.

A thistle tortoise beetle.

Freshwater snail eggs.

Sea urchin larva found in marine plankton.

Single-celled marine organisms that grow on seaweeds.

The inside of a mouse eye. Fibers (blue) help suspend the lens at the center (red).

Layered crystal faces of smithsonite.

Transport tissue in a buttercup root.

The iris of a human eye, with a "freckle" shown in blue.

A wilted flower.

Nikon Small World also awards winners for its "Small World in Motion" video contest. See all of those winners here.

Disclosure: Dave Mosher, one of the authors of this post, was invited to judge the Nikon Small World competitions in 2017 and 2014.

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