Every year science and art collide in the Nikon Small World in Motion Photomicrography Competition in which brief videos shot through a microscope battle it out to see which will rise to the top. This year's top three winners include hypnotic water patterns made by an eight-week-old starfish larva, a predatory ciliate stretching its rubbery neck to gobble up prey, and a blooming fungus.

This is the fifth year the competition is running. It is a spinoff of Nikon's Small World Photography competition that began in 1975.

To capture first place, William Gilpin – a PhD candidate at Stanford University – and his team, used a technique known as dark field microscopy that brings out the characteristics of a subject and its surroundings thanks to the creation of a dark background. In this case, Gilpin filled the water around a starfish larva with tiny plastic beads and then filmed the scene as the beads moved. The hypnotic swirls and vortices are created as the larva – which measures less than a millimeter in length – churns the water looking for food.

In addition to being pleasing to look at, the patterns also bring to light the never-before-seen pattern of how the baby starfish uses its appendages to pull food particles towards it. Such a feeding adaptation is both efficient and a bit dangerous, as it can broadcast the larva's location to larger predators.

Gilpin says that the observation could also have further implications for science.

"While starfish are the among the first animals that have evolved to control the environment around them in this manner, science proves that adaptations are likely mimicked by other more-complex animals later," he said. "Biology aside, this process can also be the foundation for industrial purposes for something like advancements in water filters for precise manipulation of water."

The second-place winner in the contest also revolves around food. It shows a predatory ciliate known as Lacrymaria olor feasting on a microscopic bit of food by stretching its neck to an impressive length. The protozoa, in fact, is able to extend its neck over seven times the length of its body in any direction (even around corners) to snag its prey. Its name comes from the Latin for "swan tear." The video was filmed by Charles Krebs, a photomicrography specialist from Issaquah, Washington who first place with a photo in the Small World competition in 2005.

The third place spot is also a bit food related in that it shows the blooming of a fungus that is a common contaminant known as Aspergillus niger, which causes black mold on food. It was shot by another previous Small World participant, Wim van Egmond from the Micropolitan Museum in the Netherlands.

"The beauty of this time-lapse video and the science behind it epitomizes how video is not only essential to scientific researchers, but to inspire future scientists to explore life around them," said Eric Flem, Communications Manager, Nikon Instruments. "It is one thing to see a still image captured under the microscope, but to see this life in motion truly puts the intricacy and beauty of the world into perspective."

In addition to the first-, second-, and third-place spots – which garnered prizes of US$3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 respectively – the competition also handed out 17 other nods as honorable mentions including a glimpse at the nervous system of a fruit fly and killer cells going to work destroying a cancer cell in vitro. You can see them all individually on the Small World in Motion Competition page, or together in the compilation video below.

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