Shining a Light on Bioluminescence: An Open Ocean Exploration

The natural world is full of weird and wonderful creatures – carnivorous plants, flowers that smell of rotting meat, fish that fly and spiders that eat their lovers. However, the coolest organisms can be found in the dark crevices of the ocean. This secluded world features an abundance of extreme adaptations, one of which is bioluminescence.

So what is bioluminescence? It’s the production and emission of light by living organisms. This adaptation serves many advantages and can be noticed in a variety of individuals, including jellyfish, fungi, algae, coral, bacteria, clams, glow-worms, millipedes and sharks!

Think of the anglerfish in Finding Nemo. This predator lives in dark waters and uses its bioluminescent lure to attract its prey and mates. It is not uncommon for such creatures to have this type of adaptation, as the deeper we go the more important bioluminescence is due to low light availability. Scientists have even estimated that 90% of deep sea organisms have bioluminescent qualities.

Other cool uses are exhibited by diverse marine life. The clusterwink snail lives in rocky sea shores and flashes a vibrant green to deter predators, giving the illusion that it is larger than it really is. The vampire squid squirts out a bioluminescent mucus to confuse its predators, whilst the flashlight fish uses bright organs under its eyes to help catch prey and mislead its enemies.

However, one of the most visually terrifying bioluminescent organisms is the black dragonfish (pictured above). This creature uses red bioluminescent light to detect its prey. This helps protect the dragonfish as the red light cannot be noticed easily by predators. It gets even cooler! It has a stomach that has black lining on the inside, meaning that it can eat as many bioluminescent organisms as it wants as their glow will be contained, keeping the dragonfish camouflaged from its predators.

Why would we care though? I’m glad you asked. Bioluminescence is not just cool – it is important to appreciate and research as it can be utilised in the future. Bioluminescent imaging has already been conducted on mice, helping to monitor and identify tumours, lung inflammation and bacterial pneumonia. This could potentially serve an important purpose for humans in the future.

Furthermore, bioluminescence could be the answer to sustainable light solutions. Could we utilise it to help reduce our carbon footprints? Could we be using bioluminescent trees in the future instead of lamp-posts? The possibilities are endless!

Here at Ecofieldtrips we pride ourselves on using nature to inspire positive change. This May we will be traveling on a field trip to Kuala Selangor where our students will investigate the ecology of the area. We will also be lucky enough to observe some bioluminescent fireflies in their natural environment.

Do yourself a favour and investigate bioluminescence around your area… you might be surprised. If you do witness this amazing natural phenomenon then please let us know – we’d love to hear about it!

Harrison Dearing – EFT Biologist