When animals light up: Bioluminescence
This is a model of an anglerfish, called that because of the modified spine sticking out of its forehead.
June 19th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

When animals light up: Bioluminescence

I can see them hovering in my Brooklyn yard: tiny balls of yellow light that flicker on and off in the dusk like lighters at a rock concert.

Fireflies are quite a common sight, although for how long we don't know. There have been widespread reports that firefly numbers are dwindling. The reports are all anecdotal, but they were enough of a concern for entomologists and biologists to hold a symposium in Thailand in 2008 entitled, "Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies." If fireflies are under threat, it's a terrible state of affairs.

Fireflies belong to a very exclusive group of land creatures that exhibit a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

In simple terms, bioluminescence is technique certain organisms have developed to create energy, in the form of light, through a chemical reaction. This reaction often involves a chemical called luciferin.

Fireflies are unique because most bioluminescent creatures – 80% – live in the sea. On land only certain insects and fungi are bioluminescent.

It was in the ocean that I first found out about this phenomenon.

I grew up in England where we don't get fireflies. We get things called glow-worms, which are not worms at all but flightless insects. They're hard to spot because they're usually hidden away in long grass or hedgerows. Consequently most Brits will probably tell you that their only recollection of a glow-worm growing up was via the pages of a cute children's story.

It was a few years ago and I was on Lombok, a tiny island next to Bali, when I first experienced the weird spectacle of nature flickering to light in the darkness. I went for a midnight swim and started to feel a strange prickling sensation and when I dipped my head underwater and ran my hand in front of me it was as if the Milky Way had been miniaturized and liquified at the same time.

The trail of sparks left by your moving hand in bioluminescent waters is caused by single-cell organisms called dinoflagellates. They're a mysterious organism scientists don't fully understand. They're a form of plankton and while they feed on prey and move around like animals, they can also convert the sun's rays into food using chlorophyll in the same way plants do.

If you want to see the coolest bioluminescent creatures, though, you've got to go into deep water.

Unless you're James Cameron or that couple who got wed on the deck of the wreck of the Titanic, you probably can't afford a ride in a deep-sea submersible to the ocean bottom.

Don't despair, though. If you're lucky enough to be in the American Museum of Natural History  anytime soon you can check out their wonderful exhibition, “Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence,” which runs until January 6, 2013.

Here, fireflies rub shoulders with the creatures of the deep. In total, 80% of deep-sea organisms are bioluminescent, and certain of them have developed fascinating and elaborate ways of illuminating the permanent night.

Anglerfish, which are frankly hideous looking things, get their name from the modified spine that sticks out of the forehead like a fishing rod. The rod is topped with a lure that pulses with bacterial light.

Like most deep-sea creatures, anglerfish emit blue light because it's easier to detect at these depths. An exception is the stoplight loosejaw dragonfish, which gives off red light from indents just below its eyes. The loosejaw gets its name from the fact that its jaw can dislocate from its mouth when it's hunting prey. Consequently it looks quite a lot like the alien in "Predator" (which I watched as a child when I'd grown out of the cute glow-worm stories).

The natural history museum exhibit contains many more highlights, including a small replica of a cave in New Zealand where thousands of fly larvae have turned the ceiling into a festival of stars.

Walking around the exhibit I was reminded of the limitless capacity nature has to amaze. If you're in New York and you have a spare afternoon, go see it. Failing that, take a look in your backyard.

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. fact prophet

    Injection Wells: The Poison Beneath Us

    by Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica, June 21, 2012, 9:20 a.m.

    Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground.

    No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

    There are growing signs they were mistaken.

    Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water.

    In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation's most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami's drinking water.

    There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.

    Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves 2014 from which most Americans get their drinking water 2014 remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground.

    But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.

    "In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."

    June 22, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Nicole Rubio

      Great information.

      June 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
      • Edgar

        Some would say that Flag Day, June 14, sort of marks the middle of the year: the 14th day of the sixth month of the 12 month caneldar. I'm sure if you use serious mathmatics and count out the actual dates, that would be wrong, but who cares? It's funner this way! Especially since it's it happens to be my favorite holiday! My mom used to count down to each other: "only four more shopping days until flag day!" and "do you have any special plans for flag day this year!?!?!"Needless to say, I chose Flag Day as what would later become my wedding anniversary!"Tis a silly day to celebrate otherwise!

        October 13, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Susan Dyer

      I'm currently studying to get my master's in geology, and I could not agree with you more. Fracking is deplorable!

      July 1, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  2. Lightning Bug McFly

    They grind us up just to make those glowy things for the ravers to wear. No wonder we're getting scarce.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  3. Billy Hill

    Mosquito control measures also kill fireflies. Out here in the country, they are doing a lot better, but still not as thick as they used to be in the Sixties.

    June 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  4. franklovesfl

    I want one of Sheldon's luminous goldfish/night lights!!!

    June 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  5. wisdomVS

    I live in the South (NC). This year we had an over-abundance of fireflies. The trees in my back yard looked like Christmas! Maybe they migrate?

    June 21, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  6. Saywhatyoumean

    I have noticed considerably less fireflies in my area from when I was a kid. I hope my grand kids have the pleasure of enjoying fireflies before they are gone.

    June 21, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  7. fossilhund

    This story brought back memories. I never saw fireflies growing up in Orlando, so imagine my delight upon seeing them when I moved to Tallahassee for two years in the mid Eighties. I have also seen the seaside biollum he describes at night at Bonita Beach on the Gulf coast of Florida.A word to the wise, however. Those who are thinking it would be a great idea to take a nighttime swim in the Gulf to see this would do well to remember that it's said sharks move closer to the beach at night. It might be like turning on the lights at an All Night Diner! 🙂

    June 20, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  8. Shannon

    For all of those complaining about the scientific validity of one statement in this article... I beg to ask one question... Why are you reading CNN? Shouldn't you be stuffing your hioty toity nose in a Scientific Journal?

    June 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • fossilhund

      Shannon, well said. This is a delightful article.

      June 20, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  9. boarddog

    I love all the smarty pants, know-it-all types on here who spend more time critiquing a story's grammar than enjoying the read. What boring and unimaginative lives you must lead...

    June 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Lightning Bug McFly

      boarddog: "critiquing a story's grammar"

      Not the grammar, the idea that fireflies "create energy." Never mind; it's a college-level joke. You have to be what you guys call smarty pants, know-it-all types to get it. Or "hioty-toity," whatever THAT means.

      June 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Dawne

      Amen. I'm so sick of negativity.

      June 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  10. McGuffin

    How very sad when an alleged science article uses the phrase "create energy."

    June 19, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • McGuffin

      Errors aside, by the way, this is a very interesting read. Bioluminescence is just plain cool.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      Good catch! I wouldn't go so far as to call it sad. More in need of punishment. I suggest the author of this snafu be required to spend a w/e with my 8th grade science teacher, Mr. Fishly. Trust, he'll never make THAT mistake again lol

      June 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • sharoom

      I don't think the article is incorrect. These creatures are creating LIGHT energy, a particular form of energy, i.e. electromagnetic. You are correct that it is not creating energy out of nothing, but merely converting forms.

      June 19, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  11. Daniel

    When I was younger, I was watching one up close and it flew into my mouth. I swallowed it. I don't know if you've ever smelled a firefly, but they taste exactly the same way.

    June 19, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Dave in Indy

      ... thanks for the laugh.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
      • Daniel

        My pleasure. I sure miss seeing those lightning bugs around. Those were the good old days...

        June 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Larry Flynt

      Wait, except for the word "firefly", I *know* I've read this somewhere before... I started out, "Dear Penthouse; I never thought that this could actually happen to me, but...". Deja vu, man.

      June 21, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
      • Daniel

        Larry, my man! How's it hanging?

        June 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Lightning Bug McFly

      We call those "suicide bombers." One by one, we will poison you humans and reclaim our territory.

      June 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  12. JesusC

    This really stinks!

    June 19, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  13. gb

    luciferin???? My God! They are Satanic and should be destroyed and are responsible for the decline of the moral majority in America.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Nemo

      Yeah, I know it is one fo those aptly named things, but the word invokes other images.

      Luciferin (the substrate) and luciferase (the enzyme) names are derived from the latin Lucifer (lux = light, ferre = to bring) 'bringer of light'. Which does describe the action fo the enzyme when it catalyses the substrate, it does bring light itno being (with the burning of an ATP of course).


      June 19, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      Undoubtedly Obama's angels (I'm kidding)

      June 19, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  14. Sue

    When I was in high school, we did this really cool lab in AP biology where we took non-pathogenic E.Coli and inserted a pGlo gene into it. We waited a few days to let the bacteria grow and multiply and then we shined a blacklight onto the new colonies and some of them glowed. It was actually the lab that helped me decide that I really wanted to study biology in college.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Oodoodanoo

      You went to a much better high school than I did. Mine was in Cranston, RI. Guido central.

      If you don't mind me asking, where was yours?

      June 19, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  15. Thal

    "In simple terms, bioluminescence is technique certain organisms have developed to create energy,..."

    stopped reading there ..

    June 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • basketcase

      I'm not sure why you would feel the need to stop there. Bio-luminescence creates light, which in itself is a form of energy. It may not have been the most eloquent or scientifically accurate way to describe it, but I think the "In simple terms" pointed that out already.

      June 19, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Nemo

      Just replace 'create' with 'release'. That shoudl fix it.

      June 19, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • McGuffin

      That's a nice effort, basketcase, but no, there's just no justification for ever saying "create energy"; the author messed up. The only valid terms would be things like convert or release. Even if the little suckers were nuclear, they'd still just be converting energy in the form of mass to energy in the form of light, not creating it.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
      • Ben

        I mean, are we to believe that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

        June 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Billy Hill

      If it creates energy, it is a new energy source. But it's actually burning the bug's energy to create the luminescence, so new power stations made out of firefly behinds won't be fixing the energy crisis. Too bad. It would have looked cool.

      June 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  16. Paul

    What great writing on an interesting topic... That is truly becoming hard to come by.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  17. Unbelievable

    A couple weeks ago, one evening, I drove through two swarms of fireflys. It was a most errie sight seeing their remians glowing on my windsheild.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • SilentBoy741

      That's what I said about that pedestrian in the crosswalk texting on his cell phone.

      June 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  18. Wafik El-Deirr

    Bioluminescence is also now widely used in biomedical research. Visit your nearest cancer center and take a tour to find out how bioluminescence is helping study tumor growth in mice and the anti-tumor effects of new treatments. It is powerful technology that allows for new treatments to be developed more rapidly and efficiently. It all originated with studying the genes that cause the glow in fireflies and bioluminescence of sea creatures. Support biomedical research and the fight against cancer.

    Wafik El-Deiry
    Penn State University

    June 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Nemo

      The use of bioluminescence is even broader than biomedical. I worked on designed other variants of luciferin to make different colors for use with protein and DNA detection. Some of the molecules were able to detect protein down to the attomolar concetrations.

      Fun stuff.


      June 19, 2012 at 5:10 pm |


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