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Behind the Scenes of Creatures of Light

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On Exhibit posts

In the lead-up to the 2012 opening of Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence, curator John Sparks and colleagues blogged about creatures that emit light.
Curator John Sparks under water in full scuba gear.
Curator John Sparks will be blogging about the upcoming exhibition Creatures of Light. Photo courtesy of John Sparks

In just a little over a month, on March 31, the Museum will open our latest exhibition, Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, which focuses on the amazing diversity of organisms that produce light across every conceivable habitat. Every exhibition we produce is a collaboration between the Museum’s research scientists and the exhibition team, which includes writers, designers, artists, and media specialists. I’m the curator for this exhibition, which means that I oversee the scientific content and bring expertise from my research—in this case, on the evolution of bioluminescent signaling systems in marine fishes.We’re hard at work on the show this month, and I’ll be writing weekly posts from behind the scenes to offer some glimpses of what goes into producing a major exhibition. Here’s my first dispatch:

Getting the Light Right

Scientific accuracy is our top priority. Although it may seem trivial, getting the color (or wavelength) of the emitted light just right for this exhibition’s many models of bioluminescent creatures—fireflies, glowworms, siphonophores, and ponyfishes—is fundamental to accurately reproducing the diversity of natural light that organisms use for a variety of functions.

David Gruber and Amy Vlastelica use a spectrophotometer to measure the spectrum of emitted light. Photo courtesy of John Sparks

During one of our weekly walk-throughs in the Department of Exhibition’s studio, I snapped this photo of Museum Research Associate David Gruber (CUNY), who has been working with me on the exhibition, and one of the designers, Amy Vlastelica. They’re using a portable spectrophotometer, an instrument that measures the spectrum of emitted light, and an array of colored filters to find just the right combination to match the natural wavelength of bioluminescent light produced by each organism highlighted in the exhibit. As a result, visitors will be able to see the subtly dissimilar colors that different species of fireflies use to attract mates, as well as the myriad colors used by bioluminescent creatures across the tree of life.

Meet the Dinoflagellates

Marine biologist David Gruber, an assistant professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and a Museum research associate who consulted on the exhibition, contributed this guest post:

Imagine a group of single-celled animals smaller than the width of a human hair that possess 25 times the amount of DNA as humans. These organisms both bask in the sun to obtain energy, like plants, and actively hunt, like animals, even slurping out the insides of other cells. They include some of the fastest speed demons of the microscopic domain, propelling themselves up to 200-500 μm/second—the equivalent to a 6-foot Olympian athlete swimming at 40 mph. On top of these feats, a few members are responsible for creating the nighttime sparkle on breaking surf.

These creatures, seemingly out of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s alien bestiary, are the dinoflagellates. We’ve been culturing several species of these extraordinary bioluminescent “dinos” at both CUNY and the Museum in order to feature these live organisms in the upcoming exhibition Creatures of Light. (The exhibition will also feature live flashlight fish.)

In the run-up to the exhibition, we’ve also travelled to Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to test out our low-light cameras and to examine a species of bioluminescent dinoflagellate that finds this bay delightful, amassing to abundances of 6,000 individuals per tablespoon of water. In the video below, a boat passes through the Bioluminescent Bay and dinoflagellates illuminate the wake with their blue light.

Ponyfishes and Flashlight Fish

Zach Baldwin, a Ph.D. student at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School who works in the Department of Ichthyology and who consulted on the exhibition, to contribute the guest post below.

A common misconception about bioluminescent fishes is that they all live in the perpetual darkness of the deep sea. In truth, one of the most fascinating aspects of bioluminescence is the diversity of organisms and environments in which the phenomenon is known to occur. There are bioluminescent fishes occurring on coral reefs, in estuaries, and even in the rocky intertidal zone along coastlines. Approximately 100 species in nine families of fishes that live in shallow marine waters are known to luminesce.

These include ponyfishes, a group that John Sparks studies: small, silvery fishes that occur along the coastlines of the Indian Ocean. Their bioluminescence is produced in a light organ around the throat filled with luminescent bacteria that shines light backward into the fish’s swim bladder and then out the sides or bottom through translucent “windows.” Some species also shine light out from their head, including from bizarre chin headlights. They use their bioluminescence to help attract mates and to camouflage with the ambient light of their environment. Creatures of Light will include a larger-than-life model of a ponyfish, a male Photopectoralis aureus.

Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to see a live shallow-water fish, the aptly named flashlight fish Anomalops katoptron. These nocturnal fish live over coral reefs and use their impressive headlights to attract and see prey, avoid predators, communicate to other flashlight fish, and attract mates. Their light is produced by bacteria living in pouches under their eyes, which can be swiveled in and out, giving their light a blinking appearance.

John Sparks collects fishes for fluorescence imaging in December 2011. © CUNY/D. Gruber

New Discoveries

Curator John Sparks contributed this post about new discoveries in bioluminescence.

One of the most exciting, yet challenging, things about this exhibition is that we have been able to incorporate so much current research. Many of the images and results visitors will see are the subject of ongoing research projects by me and a number of collaborators.

For example, Museum Research Associate David Gruber, an assistant professor at The City University of New York (CUNY), and I captured most of the dazzling images of fluorescent fishes shown on the Bloody Bay Wall interactive exhibit in Creatures of Light less than three months ago. The striking images and information presented on deep-sea siphonophores, including a bizarre member of the genus Erenna studied by marine biologist Steven Haddock of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), are still in the process of being collected and are more or less being sent directly from the field.

The particular species of Erenna that we are featuring uses blue bioluminescent light produced in specialized tentacles to excite red fluorescent lures that this “superorganism”—a colony of highly specialized polyps with a variety of functions, including feeding, movement, buoyancy, and reproduction—uses to attract prey. More information on these strange creatures can be found here.

This fluorescent green false moray eel (Chlopsidae) was photographed on a field expedition three months ago. © CUNY/D. Gruber; © AMNH/J. Sparks


Across the Tree of Life

Curator John Sparks contributed this post about the great breadth of creatures that employ bioluminescence.

Many people are familiar with the summertime flashing patterns of fireflies and have seen images of bizarre bioluminescent deep-sea fishes. However, few realize how pervasive bioluminescence is throughout the tree of life. Bioluminescence is  known to occur in bacteria, protists, fungi, crustaceans, insects, worms, ctenophores, jellyfishes, squids, starfishes, sea cucumbers, tunicates, and fishes—not to mention sharks—as well as numerous additional invertebrate lineages.

The list is continually growing. What is even more surprising is the range of different chemistries and mechanisms used by various organisms to produce and emit light in myriad ways and for a variety of functions, from diverting predators or luring prey to species-specific flashing patterns used to communicate with potential mates.

John Sparks photographed this black-belly dragonfish during an expedition off the coast of San Diego. Photo courtesy of John Sparks

Throughout Creatures of Light, we highlight both the familiar and the strange via an immersive experience that takes visitors through various environments in which bioluminescence occurs, from a meadow to a New Zealand cave system to the deep sea. We also highlight the vastness of the deep sea, by far the largest habitable space on Earth, about 90 percent of which is below the reach of sunlight. Here, bioluminescence rules and is the only source of light!