Creatures of Light main content.

Creatures of Light

March 31, 2012 — January 6, 2013


Have you ever captured a glowing firefly?

On a warm summer evening, a firefly’s light seems rare and magical. Yet the tree of life is spangled with organisms that blink, glow, flash, and glitter. Welcome to the world of bioluminescence—the generation of light by living things.

Creatures of Light explores the extraordinary organisms that produce light, from the flickering fireflies found in backyards across the Northeast to the deep-sea fishes that illuminate the perpetually dark depths of the oceans. Rare among plants and animals that live on land, the ability to glow—that is, to generate light through a chemical reaction—is much more common in the ocean, where up to 90 percent of animals at depths below 700 meters (2,300 feet) are bioluminescent.

The exhibition addresses such essential questions as:

  • What is bioluminescence?
  • What organisms are bioluminescent, and where are they found?
  • How does bioluminescence work?
  • How do organisms use bioluminescence to survive in their environment?

In Creatures of Light, visitors will move through a series of re-created environments, from the familiar to the extreme, to explore the diversity of organisms that glow and how they do it; discover the variety of ways in which light is used to attract a mate, lure unsuspecting prey, or defend against a predator; and learn how, where, and why scientists study this amazing natural phenomenon.

Throughout the gallery, visitors can interact with iPads featuring engaging videos, photographs, and additional content about bioluminescence and related phenomena. 

Modeling Bioluminescence

What goes into the making of an exhibition about organisms that glow? Curator John Sparks, marine biologist David Gruber, and firefly expert Marc Branham discuss what's most surprising about bioluminescence, what it takes to produce a scientifically accurate model of a bioluminescent animal, and how to re-create the experience of scuba diving on a magnificent coral wall.

Behind the Scenes

Months before opening, a team of preparators began developing custom models of glowing organisms that light up the exhibition. Director of Exhibition Design Michael Meister and other members of the Exhibition Department share how they conduct visual research for these unique models, work with curators to make them scientifically accurate, and meet the various challenges of creating an exhibition about bioluminescence.

Jellies Down Deep

Increasingly, marine researchers are finding that there are far more jellies and jellyfish in the world's oceans than previously believed. These creatures may play an unexpectedly large role in ocean ecosystems. This documentary, which was produced by the Museum's innovative multimedia program Science Bulletins, follows scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute as they retrieve jellies from the deep, and features spectacular underwater footage.

Inside the Ichthyology Collection

Dr. Melanie Stiassny, Curator in the Department of Ichthyology, leads a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s vast collection of fishes.

The Department of Ichthyology, one of the four departments within the Museum's Division of Vertebrate Zoology, houses a collection that includes more than 2 million specimens, with a special focus on African, Australian, Central American, Chinese, and Malagasy fresh water fishes as well as Bahamian and Gulf of Mexican shore fishes. The department's three curators, as well as postdoctoral fellows, students, and staff, regularly conduct fieldwork to add to these collections.

Meet the Curator

John Sparks travels the world in search of bioluminescent and biofluorescent marine organisms. His research is focused on the evolution and diversification of the bacteria-driven bioluminescent signaling systems in ponyfishes—small, silvery fishes restricted to the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific that have light organs surrounding their throats—as well as the evolution of specialized hearing in marine and freshwater fishes. His recent fieldwork includes biotic surveys and inventories of freshwater and nearshore marine fishes in Madagascar, the Indo-Pacific region, South America, the Western Atlantic, and the Caribbean.

Dr. Sparks is curator-in-charge and associate curator in the Department of Ichthyology, a professor in the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the Museum, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. Dr. Sparks received the M.Sc. degree in biology from the University of Michigan in 1997 and the Ph.D. degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan in 2001. He joined the Museum in 2002.

Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada, and The Field Museum, Chicago.

Generous support for Creatures of Light has been provided by the Eileen P. Bernard Exhibition Fund.