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Researchers Reveal Covert World of Fish Biofluorescence

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 A team of researchers led by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History has released the first report of widespread biofluorescence in the tree of life of fishes, identifying more than 180 species that glow in a wide range of colors and patterns.

Published today in PLOS ONE, the research shows that biofluorescence—a phenomenon by which organisms absorb light, transform it, and eject it as a different color—is common and variable among marine fish species, indicating its potential use in communication and mating. The report opens the door for the discovery of new fluorescent proteins that could be used in biomedical research.

Learn more in a video.


“We’ve long known about biofluorescence underwater in organisms like corals, jellyfish, and even in land animals like butterflies and parrots, but fish biofluorescence has been reported in only a few research publications,” said co-lead author John Sparks, a curator in the Museum’s Department of Ichthyology. “This paper is the first to look at the wide distribution of biofluorescence across fishes, and it opens up a number of new research areas.”

PLOS One Sparks-Gruber Biofluorescence

Beautiful biofluorescence: Researchers discovered a rich diversity of fluorescent patterns and colors in marine fishes, as exemplified here. A). swell shark (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum); B). ray (Urobatis jamaicensis); C). sole (Soleichthys heterorhinos); D). flathead (Cociella hutchinsi); E). lizardfish (Saurida gracilis); F). frogfish (Antennarius maculatus); G). stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa); H). false moray eel (Kaupichthys brachychirus); I). Chlopsidae (Kaupichthys nuchalis); J). pipefish (Corythoichthys haematopterus); K). sand stargazer (Gillellus uranidea); L). goby (Eviota sp.); M). Gobiidae (Eviota atriventris); N). surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus, larval); O). threadfin bream (Scolopsis bilineata).

© PLOS ONE


Unlike the full-color environment that humans and other terrestrial animals inhabit, fishes live in a world that is predominantly blue because, with depth, water quickly absorbs the majority of the visible light spectrum. In recent years, the research team has discovered that many fishes absorb the remaining blue light and re-emit it in neon greens, reds, and oranges.

“By designing scientific lighting that mimics the ocean’s light along with cameras that can capture the animals’ fluorescent light, we can now catch a glimpse of this hidden biofluorescent universe,” said co-lead author David Gruber, an associate professor of biology at Baruch College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. “Many shallow reef inhabitants and fish have the capabilities to detect fluorescent light and may be using biofluorescence in similar fashions to how animals use bioluminescence, such as to find mates and to camouflage.”

The researchers’ investigations into fish biofluorescence began with a serendipitous observation of green eel fluorescence off of Little Cayman Island as Sparks and Gruber were imaging coral biofluorescence for an exhibit for the traveling American Museum of Natural History exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence.

Triplefin blennie

A triplefin blennie (Enneapterygius sp.) under white light (above) and blue light (below).

© J. Sparks and D. Gruber


To further explore this phenomenon, Sparks, Gruber, and researchers from the John B. Pierce Laboratory of Yale University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Haifa, Israel, along with professional photographers and videographers, embarked on four additional high-tech expeditions to tropical waters off of the Exumas in the Bahamas and the Solomon Islands. During night dives, the team stimulated biofluorescence in the fish with high-intensity blue light arrays housed in watertight cases. The resulting underwater light show is invisible to the human eye. To record this activity, the researchers used custom-built underwater cameras with yellow filters, which block out the blue light, as well as yellow head visors that allow them to see the biofluorescent glow while swimming on the reef.

The most recent expedition was The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition, the first trip under the Museum's new initiative that supports exploratory fieldwork that is multidisciplinary and heavily integrated with emerging technologies. From the research vessel Alucia the scientists conducted technical scuba dives and descended in a 3-person submersible to examine deep coral reef biofluorescence down to 1,000 meters. They also submitted the scientific paper while aboard the Alucia.

These expeditions revealed a zoo of biofluorescent fishes—from both cartilaginous (e.g. sharks and rays) and bony (e.g. eels and lizardfishes) lineages—especially among cryptically patterned, well-camouflaged species living in coral reefs. By imaging and collecting specimens in the island waters, and conducting supplementary studies at public aquariums after hours, researchers identified more than 180 species of biofluorescent fishes, including species-specific emission patterns among close relatives.

Read more in a press release

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