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6 Bioluminescent Organisms that Almost Look Unreal

Bioluminescent Organisms

It is impossible not to find nature astounding when we consider the innumerable ways in which life adapts itself to survive. Bioluminescence is one such adaptation, and here are six bioluminescent organisms that almost look unreal.

1. Luminescent Panellus

Bioluminescent Fungus
Image credit: Ylem/Wikimedia

Also known as “bitter oyster,” the luminescent panellus is a species of fungus found commonly in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. It grows on decaying tree stumps, logs, and trunks, especially of birch, oak, and beech trees. This phenomenon of fungal bioluminescence in decaying wood is often popularly referred to as “foxfire” or “fairy fire”.

The fungus glows throughout the day. But its brightness is low compared to other bioluminescent creatures and can best be seen during the night. Like most bioluminescence, the fungus’ glow is produced by the reaction between the enzyme luciferase and the compound luciferin, both the names derived from the Latin word “lucifer,” meaning “lightbringer.”(source)

2. New Zealand Glowworm

Bioluminescent Fungus Glowworm
New Zealand Glowworm Cave

Also just known as “glowworm,” these organisms are endemic to New Zealand and found in caves and sheltered banks with high levels of humidity.

Despite their name, they’re actually not worms but the larvae and imago of a fungus gnat, a type of flying insect, which produce blue-green bioluminescence. This attracts their prey into the silky threads they hang from the ceiling on which they place sticky droplets as a trap. Its Maori name, “titiwai,” means “projected over water.”

The glowworm’s bioluminescence is produced in a modified excretory organ known as “Malpighian tubules,” which facilitates the luciferase-luciferin reaction. Though it is unclear why, the pupae and adults also produce bioluminescence, which could be because the Malpighian tubules are unaffected during their metamorphosis.(source)

3. Comb Jellies

Comb Jellies
Ctenophora

Comb jellies are a phylum of invertebrates that measure anywhere between a few millimeters to over 1.5 meters and are found in marine waters all over the world.

Characterized by their slender, tentacle-like structures known as “cilia” or “combs,” these creatures exhibit either bioluminescence, rainbow effects, or both.

The rainbow effects produced on their combs are due to the scattering of light as they move, while the bioluminescent effects generally produce either blue or green lights that can only be seen in the dark.(source)

4. Electric Clam

Electric Clam
Disco clam

Also known as “disco clam,” the electric clam is a species of bivalves known to exhibit flashing displays of lights. Found in the tropical waters of the central Indo-Pacific Region, these clams are not truly bioluminescent like many other marine creatures that produce their own light.

Researchers found that these clams actually have highly reflective tissues on the outer edge of their mantle which contains nano-spheres made of silica. As the clam exposes and hides the tissue quickly, it gives the impression that the tissue is flashing light, while it’s actually just reflecting it. (source)

5. Sea Sparkle

Sea Sparkle
Noctiluca scintillans

Sea sparkle, or Noctiluca miliaris, is a free-living, marine plankton species of dinoflagellate that are typically 0.2 to two millimeters in diameter and often found along the coasts, estuaries, and shallow marine areas where there is plenty of sunlight.

They are known for exhibiting a phenomenon popularly known as “mareel” or the “milky seas effect” in which they glow bright electric blue when disturbed by something like a wave, for example.

Sea sparkles have special structures in their cells known as “scintillons” where luciferase reacts with luciferin to produce bioluminescence. (source)

6. Flashlight Fish

Flashlight Fish
Image source: aquariumofpacific.org

Also known as “lanterneye fish,” the flashlight fish are a nocturnal species of fish that contain special light organs under their eyes filled with ever-glowing bioluminescent bacteria.

Typically less than half a foot in length and found in the Indo-Pacific as well as Caribbean Regions, they use their light organs to communicate, attract prey, and elude predators.

When they don’t need to use the light organs, they just close their dark lid or draw them into a pouch, essentially “shutting off” the light. (1,2)

So, which one is your favorite?

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