These amazing sea creatures have evolved to be able to make their own light.
Deep in the ocean, where sunlight can no longer penetrate, lies an incredible world of darkness. And against all odds, this just happens to be the location of one of nature’s most impressive artificial light shows. The creatures here have evolved their own ways of dealing with the darkness. Through a process known as bioluminescence, they have developed the ability to use chemicals within their bodies to produce light.
10. Vibrio Harveyi Bacteria
Sailors have long reported miraculous sightings of luminous, glowing seawater. Consider Captain Kingman’s report, made in the dead of night in June, 1854, in the ocean south of Java, Indonesia. “The whole appearance of the ocean was like a plain covered with snow,” Kingman wrote. Ocean-going myth? It turns out that the stories are true.
The “milky sea” effect of constant light over a wide area comes from the luminous bacteria Vibrio harveyi, living alongside microalgal blooms. In order to create the effect of a milky sea, the populations of these bacteria are, as predicted, phenomenally large. Each contains an estimated 200 times more than the number of background, free-living bacteria spread over the continental shelf waters of all the oceans put together.
Scientists gained the first ever pictures of the milky sea effect in the fall of 2005. The photos, gleaned from images taken by the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, show a glowing portion of the ocean that’s about the size of Connecticut. In other words, this milky sea of bright bacteria was visible to the naked eye from space.
Dinoflagellates are very small marine plankton that when in a group produce a bright glow in the water. Perhaps the most well known example of this light can be found in Mosquito Bay, which is off the coast of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The bay, also known as The Bio Bay, has the perfect combination of elements for the dinoflagellates to show off their blue glow. The bay is relatively free of pollution, and is deep and big enough to stay cool in the daytime. All of these factors create one of nature’s most beautiful spectacles when the dinoflagellates provide their eerie light.
8. Firefly Squid
The firefly squid is found in particular abundance in Toyama Bay off the coast of central Japan. This creature has organs called photophores at the end of each tentacle which emit light, and are used to communicate with others, to distract a predator or lure their pray. The eyes of a firefly squid are specially formed to distinguish ambient light and bioluminescence light, which allows them to distinguish if other light is produced by fellow firefly squids or by predators. This is the only squid is that has color vision.
7. Bioluminescent Jellyfish
A jellyfish that glows is one of the most beautiful sights that nature provides. While some types such as the crystal jelly emit blue and green light, jellyfish throughout the seas show a rainbow of colors. Jellyfish become luminescent when they are touched as a warning to their fellow creatures to stay away.
The deep sea anglerfish is one of the most bizarre-looking fish in the sea. The angler has an elongated dorsal spine that supports a light-producing organ which, through a chemical process known as bioluminescence, produces a blue-green light similar to that of a firefly on land. The fish uses this appendage like a fishing lure, waving it back and forth to attract its prey.
There are worms that glow called dismalites that can be found in very select places in North America. The larvae of these worms live in stream banks and sandstone caves. Dismalites (Orfelia fultoni) use their blue-green light to find food by attracting insects. Once the insects take notice of the light, they fly into a sticky web spun by the worms and are eaten, which may make the worms something other than dismal. These small worms can be found in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and were named after the Dismal Canyons in Alabama.
4. Bio-Luminescent Plankton
If you’ve had the unique privilege of witnessing bioluminescent plankton while diving at night, you know firsthand how beautiful the underwater light show can be. The ocean is filled with little spots of light, making it look like the Milky Way in the water.
Fireflies are perhaps the most famous bioluminescent creature, with over 2000 known species. Fireflies can regulate the amount of oxygen that enters their abdomen (where the chemical reaction takes place), which can create a flashing pattern. In Malaysia, fireflies have been known to flash in unison. While fireflies regulate their lights individually, they receive feedback from other light flashes around them.
2. Foxfire: Bioluminescent Mushrooms
It is not just fish and insects that glow, types of mushrooms called foxfire have the ability to produce light as well. The species Armillaria mellea is a variety of honey fungus that glows in the evening when it grows in rotting hardwood trees. This species causes root rot in a variety of plant species, so its glow is a part of the circle of life. Another type of fungi that emits light is found in Brazil. These mushrooms which are part of the genus Mycena provide a slight green glow at night. Of the 500 species of mushroom that are filed under Mycena, only 33 are known to be bioluminescent. Foxfires have had practical applications as people from various parts of the world have used the mushrooms as a natural lantern.
1. Glow Worms
Like dismalites, glowworms use their bioluminescence to attract insects into a web. For this reason, their Latin name is Arachnocampa (which translates indirectly to spider-worm). Perhaps the most well-known glowworm is the Arachnocampa luminoso of New Zealand. In New Zealand, glowworms survive in caves because they can spin their webs from the cave ceiling.