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It's a trap! Micro monster takes Olympus BioScapes photo prize

Image: Humped bladderwort
This 100x photomicrograph shows the open trap of an aquatic carnivorous plant known as the humped bladderwort. Igor Siwanowicz's picture of the floating plant won first prize in the 2013 Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition.Igor Siwanowicz

It's hard to know whether to gasp or laugh at the winning picture in this year's Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition.

One thing's for sure: The humped bladderwort is no laughing matter to its prey. That is, if insects and other tiny critters could laugh. Like the Venus flytrap, the bladderwort is carnivorous: When an insect touches its trigger hairs, the plant sucks the bug inside its trap and digests it.

Igor Siwanowicz's first-place picture shows the bladderwort's open trap, with the bases of trigger hairs visible in the center of the dome-shaped entrance at the top. You can see an assortment of single-celled green algae sitting at the bottom of the trap. The red in the image comes from chlorophyll's innate fluorescence.

Under the microscope, the ecosystem inside a bladderwort's trap looks so bizarre and colorful that it's hard to resist chuckling over the weirdness of it all. Check out these additional views of the bladderwort at work — all courtesy of Siwanowicz, a researcher at the HHMI Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia.

Siwanowicz is an old hand at photomicrography. Last year, his picture of a fern's crazy-looking sporangia won third prize in the Olympus BioScapes contest, which celebrates photos and videos of microscopic life subjects. The year before that, his snapshot of a lacewing larva with great big mandibles took first prize in the Nikon Small World competition, another showcase for photomicrographs. And in addition to this bladderwort beauty, Siwanowicz won third prize in this year's Olympus BioScapes contest for a composite image showing a collection of single-celled freshwater algae known as desmids.

You can see the the top 10 images from the Olympus BioScapes contest, plus a bonus round of honorable mentions, in our slideshow. Don't miss the "peekaboo" bat embryo and the compound eye of a long-legged fly. After you're finished gasping (or laughing) over this year's stunners, take a look at the microscopic marvels from previous competitions.

More microscopic marvels:

A selection of top images from this year's Olympus BioScapes competition will be displayed in a museum tour that will travel through the United States over the coming year. Other exhibits will tour cities across the U.S., Mexico, South America, Canada and the Middle East throughout 2014. Check the Olympus BioScapes website for more information.

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles.