Streams

Please Explain: Bioluminescence

Friday, May 04, 2012

John Sparks, associate curator and curator-in-charge, department of Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, and David Gruber, assistant professor at the City University of New York and a research associate at the museum, discuss the variety of bioluminescent organisms—from fungus to dinoflagellates to jellyfish—and explain the various ways they glow, the functions of bioluminescence, and how scientists study it. The exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence is on view at the American Museum of Natural History through January 6, 2013.

© AMNH\J. Sparks
Bitter oyster mushroom (Panellus stipticus)

These bioluminescent mushrooms grow on decaying wood in the forests of eastern North America.

©AMNH\D. Finnin
Live dinoflagellates (Pyrocystis fusiformis)

The flickering glow comes from thousands of live single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates. The species on display here, Pyrocystis fusiformis, is a spindle-shaped cell about one millimeter long—just large enough to be seen without a microscope. Tiny particles in each cell called scintillons contain chemicals that mix and make light when the water is shaken or stirred.

© Jim Hellemn, portraitofacoralreef.com
Bloody Bay Wall close up image 1 (full-spectrum illumination)

Cayman Islands’ Bloody Bay Wall, a species-rich coral wall that is home to many bioluminescent and biofluorescent animals. Still relatively pristine, Bloody Bay Wall drops down 1,000 feet.

This interactive mural captures a slice of life on Bloody Bay Wall, off Little Cayman Island in the Caribbean Sea. In daylight, creatures on this coral wall can be seen in fine detail. The same areas look very different at night, when lit by high-energy spotlights. The brilliant patches of red, green, and orange come from corals, fishes, and sea anemones that are fluorescent, not bioluminescent. The vivid colors only appear when the animals are illuminated by specific wavelengths of light.

© Jim Hellemn, portraitofacoralreef.com
Bloody Bay Wall close up 2 (fluorescence image showing red fluorescence and Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP))

Cayman Islands’ Bloody Bay Wall, a species-rich coral wall that is home to many bioluminescent and biofluorescent animals. Still relatively pristine, Bloody Bay Wall drops down 1,000 feet.

This interactive mural captures a slice of life on Bloody Bay Wall, off Little Cayman Island in the Caribbean Sea. In daylight, creatures on this coral wall can be seen in fine detail. The same areas look very different at night, when lit by high-energy spotlights. The brilliant patches of red, green, and orange come from corals, fishes, and sea anemones that are fluorescent, not bioluminescent. The vivid colors only appear when the animals are illuminated by specific wavelengths of light.

© Jim Hellemn, portraitofacoralreef.com
Bloody Bay Wall close up 3 (coral fluorescence image showing GFP)

Cayman Islands’ Bloody Bay Wall, a species-rich coral wall that is home to many bioluminescent and biofluorescent animals. Still relatively pristine, Bloody Bay Wall drops down 1,000 feet.

This interactive mural captures a slice of life on Bloody Bay Wall, off Little Cayman Island in the Caribbean Sea. In daylight, creatures on this coral wall can be seen in fine detail. The same areas look very different at night, when lit by high-energy spotlights. The brilliant patches of red, green, and orange come from corals, fishes, and sea anemones that are fluorescent, not bioluminescent. The vivid colors only appear when the animals are illuminated by specific wavelengths of light.

©AMNH\D. Finnin
Scorpions

Minerals can contain fluorescent molecules that glow under ultraviolet light. Scorpions, some spiders, and many insects are fluorescent too.

© FMNH\L. Smith and AMNH\J. Sparks
Flashlight fish (Anomalops katoptron)

Live flashlight fish are on display in the exhibition. Flashlight fish harbor bioluminescent bacteria in an organ under their eyes and use the light produced by the bacteria to communicate, avoid predation, and to attract prey.

Guests:

David Gruber and John Sparks

Comments [9]

J from NYC

Is there any research on light generated by such organisms which is outside of the range that humans see?

May. 04 2012 01:57 PM
lisa

A strong memory from my schooldays in England is being taken to the seashore's edge on the NE Yorkshire coast one night during a field trip. The whole sea was glowing, - nocti luca? So beautiful.

May. 04 2012 01:44 PM
KC from Jackson Heights

i wondered why the show did not feature live organisms. it was a great installation, but paled next to the magic of the real thing . . .

May. 04 2012 01:42 PM
Kate Green

Hi Leonard--please ask the guest how it is possible that running into a firefly with your car windshield spreads the luminescence, still glowing, as a large splat--how can it still glow even though the bug is dead? (yes I feel bad for it)

thanks.

May. 04 2012 01:31 PM
Ericka

thanks for talking about this. besides the Museum Show, you can see great forest bioluminescence in the current nature film CHIMPANZEE.

May. 04 2012 01:27 PM

Do some of these bioluminescent species appear particularly different to other species that have different visual capabilities? Many nocturnal species have much better low-light vision than humans, so perhaps they see something very different.

May. 04 2012 01:27 PM
Greg from UES

Why do see bi-luminescence in the summer time in warm salt water. I have had many experiences of seeing a trail of light behind a canoe paddle or your hand going thru the water at night. The shades of light seem to vary in intensity and color and sometimes, are not there at all when I expect they. What conditions make this happen and what organisms are giving off the light?

May. 04 2012 01:25 PM

Photographer Gregory Crewdson did a very nice series on fireflies, from Western Massachusetts, I think.

May. 04 2012 01:25 PM
Henrietta from NYC

Years ago, during the middle of a warm summer night in rural Virginia, I saw a tree filled with hundreds or thousands of bioluminescent creatures. I wasn't close enough to see what they were. I assume they were fireflies but I had never seen so many congregating in one specific place. Were they doing something specific?

May. 04 2012 01:25 PM

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