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Bioluminescence Across the Tree of Life

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

Hatchetfishes are among the deep-sea animals that produce light. Photo courtesy of John Sparks

Curator John Sparks is blogging weekly about the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Creatures of Light, which opens on Saturday, March 31.

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!

Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence opens on Saturday, March 31.