Microscopic ‘Martian landscape’ hidden within a leaf wins the Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition

06 December 2023

The microscopic world hidden within an unassuming autumn leaf has been announced as the winner of the Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition 2023.

Returning for the first time since 2019, the prize celebrates the power of photography to convey scientific phenomena happening all around us. 

This is exemplified in this year’s overall winner, which captures the steel-blue iridescence of the plasmodial slime mould, Lamproderma scintillans, populating the surface of a decomposing autumnal leaf. 

The competition spans five categories: 

  • Astronomy
  • Behaviour
  • Earth science and climatology
  • Ecology and environmental science 
  • Microimaging 

Group winners each receive a £500 prize with the overall winner taking home a grand prize of £1,000.

This year’s overall winner, in the Microimaging category, is Mrs Irina Petrova Adamatzky, who researches the electrical activity of fungi, slime moulds and other microorganisms, at the Unconventional Computing Lab, UWE Bristol. 

“I unintentionally captured this scene while collecting samples of slime moulds in a field near my home in Somerset,” Irina said. “I noticed them the evening before and had intended to gather samples to measure their electrical activity for our research. However, my attention was diverted by a simple autumn leaf that, although seemingly ordinary, held something intriguing within. I gathered it, along with my samples, and the following day I was amazed to discover what appeared to be another world within the confines of that unassuming leaf.”

Professor Ulrike Muller, California State University Fresno, one of the judges of this year’s competition, said: “The photographer turned the constraints of macrophotography into an asset to highlight the beauty of an often-overlooked organism. The out-of-focus fore- and background make the spore-containing sporangia of the slime mould appear like a professional group portrait, and the image is framed so one sporangium peeks in from the side, giving the grouping a playful dynamic. The texture of the leaf and the iridescence of the sporangia create an artful composition highlighting the natural habitat of this slime mould that delivers an essential yet often underappreciated ecosystem service – decomposing biomatter.”

Out of nearly 600 entries, four other stunning photos were singled out by the judges as winners in their categories:

  • Astronomy: ‘The Western Veil Nebula’ by Mr Imran Sultan. “About 10,000-20,000 years ago, a massive star exploded in a supernova. The result was the Veil Nebula, a magnificent supernova remnant found in the Cygnus constellation. My picture shows a part of the nebula known as the Western Veil, imaged over two nights from the city skies of the Chicago suburbs. I was able to overcome the extreme light pollution, a growing problem that is detrimental to stargazing and makes deep sky astrophotography nearly impossible, by using a special filter which only allows certain wavelengths of light to pass through.”
  • Behaviour: ‘Nightly elevator’ by Dr Tom Shlesinger. “Every night, the largest migration in the world takes place in the ocean. As the night falls, many organisms move up from the great depths of the ocean towards the sea surface. They engage in this vertical migration mostly to access food while avoiding daytime predators. Before the crack of dawn, they descend back down. Many small or juvenile animals are hitching a ride on jellyfishes, which provide a unique ‘elevator’”
  • Earth Science and climatology: ‘A crack in time’ by Dr Chia-Hsin (Wendy) Tsai. “The photo was taken during an undergraduate field course at the Corinth Canal in Greece in September 2022. The image depicts a typical outcrop, showcasing normal faults within extensional tectonics setting. The Corinth Canal sits in the centre of the neotectonic depression and cuts through numerous normal faults. The canal was being excavated for expansion when this photo was taken, rendering the outcrop fresh. Notably, a surveyor with a measuring tool was captured coincidentally as a great scale.”
  • Ecology and environmental Science: ‘Star of the night’ by Dr Tom Shlesinger. “What happens at a coral reef at night? Some fish go to sleep while other animals wake up and come out of their dens to forage. The seemingly busy life during sunlight hours continues, just with different actors. Here, a school of small fish run wild above a colourful reef and a sea star, which just came out of its den to forage.