Bioluminescence – creatures that glow at night



credits Wikicommons


Bioluminescence – Those creatures that glow at night. As we are still making the discovery of new species of living creatures every day and as we know more about the surface of the moon than the depth of the oceans, our world really harbors some unique and mind-blowing Life. If you think you had seen it all, how about animals that can produce their own light for different life functions like nutrition, communication or reproduction? Here’s all you need to know about bioluminescence.


News outlets around the world recently reported huge outbreaks of bioluminescence flourishing along the sanding coast of California and Australia. A famous video that took the internet by storm, surfaced a few weeks ago from Newport Beach California (Patrick Coyne), where a boat was following dolphins swimming in the surf. Only, it was at night and it was really dark. Then you see these fluorescent blue shapes crossing each other and leaving a short trail in the water, just as if taken straight from the Avatar movie. The movement of the Dolphins caused tiny plankton particles to collide and move, which in turns results in them glowing blue through a process called bioluminescence.

Glow in the night

credits Wikicommons


Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism, as part of a phenomenon called chemiluminescence. A wide range of organisms can produce their own light for a wide range of life functions. A lot of marine life depend on this process to survive, usually in places where light is not present like in the depths of the oceans. We also find bioluminescence in insects or fungi on terrestrial Earth. Bioluminescence typically comes from the animal itself (autogenic) or thanks to the association (symbiosis) with another organism like a bacteria (bacteriogenetic).


As a rule, bioluminescence almost always involves a chemical reaction between a light-emitting molecule and an enzyme, generally called luciferin and luciferase, respectively. Because these are generic names and because they vary from a species to another, we usually add the name of the species in front of ‘luciferin’ and ‘luciferase’ as a way of distinguishing. For example, firefly produce Firefly luciferin and Firefly luciferase.

Glowing fly

credits Wikicommons


Bioluminescence has several uses in nature. Some use it to as a defensive way to startle an enemy, to camouflage (counterillumination), to mis-direct (smoke screen), to make predators easier to spot for others (burglar alarm), or to warn to deter settlers. Some other species use it to lure a prey (nutrition), to stun or confuse a prey or to illuminate it. Finally, others use bioluminescence in the process of finding or attracting a mate.


Among the most famous cases of bioluminescence, fireflies use light to attract a mate. Some species of firefly feature bioluminescent females, which abdomen glow to attract a passing male. In some others, the abdomen of only the males glow as they are flying to attract a female to a leaf or a branch.

Glowing tip

credits Wikicommons


Another kind of bioluminescent attraction is also quite famous. In New-Zealand, the larvae of a fungus gnat live in the ceiling of dark and humid caves. Each larva clings to the top of the cave and produces an invisible thread of sticky glue dangling from its silky burrow. Then, they produce a light-blue/greenish light to attract flying insects. Their prey is lured to fly near them and as they are attracted to the glow, they get tangled in the sticky threads. The larva senses the prey’s vibrations as it desperately attempts to escape and reels it in to devour it.


credits Wikicommons



Bioluminescence is used by a variety of animals to mimic other species. Many species of  deep-sea fish such as the anglerfish and dragonfish make use of aggressive mimicry to attract prey. They have an appendage on their heads called an esca that contains bioluminescent bacteria able to produce a long-lasting glow which the fish can control. The glowing esca is dangled or waved about to lure small animals to within striking distance of the fish.

Fish with a light

credits Wikicommons


Another case of widely observed bioluminescence is of a planktonic origin. In the warm waters of coasts and fresh-water bodies, Dinoflagellates can produce a fantastic light-blue show as the water gets agitated. They are a kind of marine plankton, which are responsible for most of the coastal bioluminescence we witness, like the one in the dolphin video aforementioned. It is believed that these algea produce phosphorescence in the breaking waves in defense against predators. According to some theories, they quickly produce a light-blue light as the sense a quick and energetic movement around them to attract predators of high trophic levels, which might in turn feed on their predators.


Did you know you can also find bioluminescent mushrooms? Yes, you are not in Ferngully: up to 75 species of phosphorescent fungi has been listed to this date, living mostly in temperate and tropical climates. They almost all belong to the Agaricales order and emit a continuous greenish light at a wavelength of 520-530nm. The reason why these mushrooms produce light is still unknown, but some scientists speculate that it linked to their metabolic activity. More recently however, a team of researchers have successfully isolated the genes responsible for bioluminescence to transfer them into plants to be put inside homes as a way of fighting light pollution.


credits Wikicommons


Bioluminescence is used in biological and medicine research. Luciferase systems are widely used in genetic engineering as reporter genes, each producing a different color by fluorescence, and for biomedical research using bioluminescence imaging. It is also studied in the context of cell destruction and cancer treatment.



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