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Explore21: Finding Fluorescent Fish

From the Field posts

A few months ago, Curator John Sparks and team set out to the Solomon Islands on the inaugural Explore21 expedition to explore mysterious organisms that light up the ocean (as well as to study uncharted microbial life and the rich diversity of fishes, corals, and other animals). After collecting fishes on dives or through midwater trawling, the real work on the research vessel, the Alucia, would begin: processing specimens, including photographing a variety of fishes in on-board tanks using specialized equipment.

The first set of photos, taken under white light, capture the fish's coloring as seen by the human eye. The second shot, taken in the dark with special filters, reveals biofluorescence—which Sparks and colleagues have recently reported to be surprisingly widespread and varied in terms of color and pattern among marine fishes. Below are just a few examples of some of the specimens Sparks and colleagues collected on the trip.

Under white light, some species, including the Eviota goby below, appear relatively plain. 

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


Under fluorescent light, however, unique patterns emerge. Researchers think that fishes like the gobies of the Eviota family may use such distinct patterns to identify members of their own species. In fact, among many closely related species, including within the Eviota genus, researchers observed that fluorescent patterns appear more distinct than coloring or patterns that are visible under white light.

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


 

Wrasses comprise a large and diverse family, Labridae, with more than 600 species. Many are brightly colored, but the species shown below has little to excite the human eye.

 

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


When researchers examined the same fish for fluorescence under blue light, however, they discovered a rare wrasse that fluoresces quite brilliantly.

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


Some species of sea breams, including the one below, have unique patterns that are plainly visible in daytime. 

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


As it turns out, these racing stripes are also incredibly fluorescent. The pattern may play a role in helping to camouflage this common reef species, making it possible for the fish to blend in with fluorescent coral branches and hide from predators. 

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


Bioluminescent patterns among fishes are incredibly varied. Some species, including eels, fluoresce only in certain body parts, such as the head and tail.

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


But in other eel species, including in the chlopsid eels (shown above and below), researchers have found bright fluorescence throughout the entire body, indicating that these organisms produce high levels of fluorescent protein. Such proteins could have a variety of applications in biomedical research.  

© AMNH/J. Sparks/R. Schelly/D. Roje


 

For more about John Sparks' and colleagues' latest research about widespread biofluorescence among fish, which identified more than 180 species that glow in a variety of colors and patterns, watch this video and read this related post.

Tags: Explore21

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