clam shrimp

The profile of a female clam shrimp by Ian Gardiner of Calgary took 10th place in the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition in October. (Ian Gardiner/Nikon Small World)

Thanks to photographer Ian Gardiner of Calgary, you'll know how to spot shrimp while hiking through the grasslands of southern Alberta this spring.

The shrimp, found in puddles, are rather strange — they're tiny, semi-transparent creatures with clam-like shells on their backs and long, feathery hairs on their legs.

Gardiner's detailed portrait of a clam shrimp from the Alberta Prairie was recognized in the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. His profile of a five-millimetre-long female with eggs was the only Canadian entry that placed, finishing 10th, in October. 

The top prize went to Ralph Grimm of Australia for a close-up of a bee's eye covered in dandelion pollen. 

Gardiner caught the tiny creature with a dip net in temporary pools that form in depressions in the grasslands when the snow melts in the spring.

"They're home to a lot of organisms, fairy shrimps and clam shrimps, that exist only in temporary habitats," said Gardiner, a retired statistician and amateur naturalist. "If the water body lasts long enough for them to complete their life cycle, then they'll appear pretty much every year."

The pools last no more than six weeks before drying up, but that's long enough for the shrimp to hatch from eggs left the previous year, grow to adulthood and reproduce. The eggs stay in the soil when the pool dries out, and can survive the extreme temperatures of both summer and winter of the continental climate far inland.

"The following spring, when the depressions fill with water again, the eggs hatch and the cycle begins all over again," Gardiner said.

A shot of vodka

The shrimp were live when he captured their portraits. 

"I give them a small shot of vodka, which kind of keeps them quiet so I can photograph them," he said. The drinks were served using an eye dropper.

The shrimp needed to keep still during the portraits because Gardiner used the focus-stacking technique to keep the whole image in focus. Normally, microscopy images have a very narrow depth of field – you can only focus at a specific distance, and everything else is out of focus.

Focus stacking involves taking multiple images, each with a slightly different focus distance, and then combining them with computer software.

Check out the photo gallery for the rest of the winning images.