One of the best things about living outside of town is the amount of high-quality nature time that I get. Whether I am driving home or in my yard, there are constant reminders for me to feel “at home” with the natural world.
I really didn’t give a shit about light pollution until a few years ago. I grew up in a place where every fucking neighbor would leave porch/driveway lights on all night.
Three summers ago I got my first taste of what it’s like to live in a place without artificial lights at night. At first, I was a little nervous–I had 5 windows in my bedroom with no curtains. Ugh.
But quickly I realized how BADASS it was to fall asleep and be able to (literally) see the stars from my bed.
The photo below shows what Orion looks like normally vs. in an area with light pollution. (Both photos are overexposed to bring out detail from more stars in the area.)
Unfortunately, some people can barely see the stars from where they live. In 1994, Los Angeles experienced an earthquake that shut off power throughout the city. As emergency centers were trying to take care of people, they were also receiving phone calls from concerned citizens reporting a mysterious “giant, silvery cloud” across the sky.
They. Were. Seeing. The. Milky. Way.
Honestly, I’d be a little freaked out if I saw a giant shimmery cloud monster in the sky for the first time.
Since moving back out of town, I’ve noticed that I am sleeping much deeper again and I feel like I got better sleep upon waking up.
According to the International Dark Sky Association, artificial lighting at night time can have many negative effects on people’s health including increased risks for:
- sleep disorders
- breast cancer
Not only is a dark sky more magically to look at, but it also has had better effects on my health after moving.
But not everyone can or wants to move just to be in a darker environment. If changing your relationship with light pollution is important to you: download f.lux, close your curtains, and stop using your goddamn phone right before falling asleep.
Peace. One love.
I grew up in a metropolitan area of about 4 million people. Growing up, I lived in suburbs. Even all throughout college, I lived in centrally-located apartments or houses.
It wasn’t until after I graduated that I lived on the edge of town. My closest neighbors were over soccer field distance away and on the other three sides of my house, I was surrounded by Forest Service land.
After living in this type of environment, I started to think about all the factors that go into how I live, what I value, and how these both influence where I choose to sign a lease:
- Light pollution
- Noise pollution
- Pace of life
- Conveniences/proximity to resources
- Bike vs. car friendly
I noticed differences in my life as they relate to these (and other) factors. I want to explore those deeper and see if they are just in my head or if there is any science backing them up.
There are some really cool videos and art projects out there relating to bioluminescence.
Here are a few that I want to share:
This first video isn’t technically bioluminescence, but the artists did an incredible job projection mapping on things living in the forest. It’s high quality, and magical.
The projection mapping “bioluminescent forest” is made by artists Friedrich van Schoor and Tarek Mawad.
The artists spent six weeks in the forest fascinated by the silence and natural occurrences in nature, especially the phenomenon “bioluminescence”. They personified the forest to accentuate the natural beauty by creating luring luminescent plants and glowing magical mushrooms that speaks volumes to any visitor that enters the minds of the artists through viewing “bioluminescent forest”.
This video kicks ass at capturing some bioluminescent plankton washing up on shore. This happens in multiple places across the world including California, Costa Rica, and Japan.
One of the coolest things on earth! And yes, I know it isn’t exactly clean to play in, but it was too fun an opportunity to pass up. Like a child playing in mud!
Also, super hard to catch in a video format. Settings f1.4, 1/25th and ISO 16000! So you’ll forgive the graininess I hope!
This video also captures some oceanic plankton bioluminescence, but this time from on board a cruise ship!
On the evening of November 7th 2012 the Sea Princess was sailing towards Melbourne. At around 10pm a rare phenomenon occurred in the sea bellow called BIOLUMINESCENCE.
These photographers captured multiple time-lapses of different glowing creatures in a forest.
When have you entered a tropical rainforest at night and be lucky enough to walk into an enchanting sight of ethereal green glowing in the dark? Have you ever chased fireflies when they suddenly appear out of nowhere in a forest? Here are two glorious subjects that delight us and they can only be seen in the dark of night when no human lights distract us from their natural wonder. They are glowing fungi and fireflies that come out in the hot humid summers in the forests of Tropical North Queensland and the coast of Camarines Sur in the Philippines.
The light you see is called bioluminescence. It is one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing miracles of nature. Scientifically, it certainly is not a miracle. The light that living creatures emit is caused by a chemical reaction that involves the light-emitting pigment luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. Bioluminescence is not a very strong light, but it’s easy to pick up if you turn your flashlight off regularly to get your eyes used to the dark.
Time-lapse sequences and video taken from various locations in Tropical North Queensland – Australia and Camarines Sur – Philippines.
Last but not least are two TED Talks given by Edith Widder. She is an oceanographer and inventor who first captured video of a living giant squid AND of marine bioluminescence back in the day. You go girl!
I’ll get to the point: animals and fungi glow because they like to rave throughout the night.
The truth is, organisms glow for many reasons (raving being one of them).
Some animals glow as a form of counter-illumination. The firefly squid is one example of this. If a predator is swimming below the animal and looking up at it, it actually makes a dark background against the surface. When lighting up, the squid can blend itself into its surrounds a little bit better.
The light is produced is in photophores, basically an organ whose job is just to produce photons. The badass thing with this is that animals, instead of producing the photons themselves, will sometimes house a bacteria (Allivibrio fischeri) in the organ in a symbiotic relationship (=BFFs). In this case, it’s the bacteria that is actually bioluminescent.
Take this anglerfish, for example…yes, it’s also the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen. I bet rotting livers on dead people are more attractive. But the anglerfish DGAFs whether or not its body is attractive or ugly…because it’s that danging light blob that does the actually attracting. (Ever more precise: it’s the bioluminescent bacteria living inside the bulby organ.)
Lil’ fishes get curious when they see a light floating around in the ocean…and they go explore…and then they get eaten up by the ugly-but-efficient anglerfish. Work smart, not hard, says the wisdom of the anglerfish totem.
Love. Ahhhh. The reason for being alive and the culprit for all of our friggin problems. We try to hard putting ourselves out there and also trying to play it cool.
Wouldn’t it be badass just to have your eyeballs light up whenever you found someone attractive? No need to be so vulnerable.
Another reason why bioluminescence occurs is to attract a mate. This is one of the more commons reasons why animals (and fungi) barf out photons from various parts of their bodies.
Okay, so NOT literally. I actually have no idea what’s happening to that fish. Maybe it thought a glowstick was some Pop Rocks.
What I was referring to was insects like fireflies. Different species of fireflies light up in different patterns, just like morse code. This helps communicate to the ladies: “Hey babe, look how hawt I am, come on over!”
There are many more animals that are bioluminescent for the same basic reasons: to attract mates or defend against predators.
In 2012, I had the most wonderful opportunity to live on a tiny tropical island in Pacific Ocean near the Philippines. Although I could tell you a thousand things that happened, there was one night that stands out in my mind in a surprising way.
I was with three friends and we decided to take a night hike. This trail was extremely rugged; it definitely brought out my adventurous side. We were undeniably in jungle land: vines strong enough to swing from, enormous limestone rock formations, terrifying-looking but truthfully-harmless insects, singing birds, the love/hate relationship with constant humidity, and dense vegetation.
About halfway along the trail, we got to a clearing. It wasn’t necessarily a meadow, but trees went from being 3 feet apart to about 25 feet apart with very few bushes in between.
This new terrain made it extremely easy to see speckles of light kissing the forest floor all around me. I was an astronaut…but only it wasn’t the moon’s light getting past the tree canopy that gave the illusion I was in space.
The light was tinted bluish/green and came from hundreds of bioluminescent mushrooms all around me. I started to tear up at the sight. I’ve seen these mushrooms up close before this moment, yet it was a different experience to see the vastness they covered in the jungle rather than just innocently peaking out from behind a fallen log.
I’ve had a lot of experiences with nature, but this encounter blew them all away by far.
The lines between microcosm and macrocosm were blurred and all that I could do was surrender to the wonder of the universe.
(Image sources unknown)
Back in the day I was obsessed with StumbleUpon.
(In case you haven’t heard of this amazing website: you sign up, add all the topics you are interested in, and click “stumble” on the top of the page. This magical click shoots you across the interwebs one at a time to bring you to most amazingly random websites you could ever come across).
On one of this clicks, StumbleUpon revealed one of the greatest blogs I’ve ever seen. It was a post of organisms that glowed in the dark!
I recognized fireflies (who hasn’t) and some other insects, but there was one that was completely new to me: bioluminescent fungi.
Yes. Mushrooms (and/or mycelium for you fun-guys) that glow in the dark. These organisms have the ability to actually produce and release photons, little tiny pieces of light.
Now, this was also in my days of being fascinated with psychedelics, specifically mushrooms. (Side note: don’t eat bioluminescent mushrooms. It will not be fun! You will die.) Maybe this isn’t completely relevant, but it just made this new discovery THAT much more exciting.
It completely baffled me that mushrooms somehow evolved to light up in the dark. Someday, I promised myself, I will meet these in person.
Fast forward to 2012, I decided to study abroad on a teeny tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. While I was here, I had to find something in the ecosystem to do a research project on. Our professor took us all over the island to explore and learn more about all the plants and animals that lived here. The land was gorgeous, but nothing quite stuck out to me enough to study.
A month into program and days before I had to start my research, our professor took us to a giant BBQ party with locals that we had befriended so far. I was mingling with the crowd and overheard someone mention the word “glowing.” Well that sounds fun, I thought to myself and I detoured off my social wandering pattern and found a nearby chair.
She, a turtle biologist, was sharing the time she was at the beach and didn’t start walking back thru the forest to her car until later at night. On her path, she noticed something was lit up on the jungle floor. She told the story about how she first saw glowing mushrooms at the beach that we all frequently went to.
IS IT POSSIBLE THAT MY BIOLOGICAL MUSE COULD BE SO CLOSE?!?!
I got goosebumps. Truthbumps, as my friend says. Shivers as I was sitting in the tropics listening to her recollection.
This. Will. Be. My. Project.
…but wow! What a challenge to convince my professors over the next several days. I mean, they were stoked for me…but it always came down to “How are you supposed to research something that you’ve never seen?” Well…it’s possible in other fields, but not for an ecologist.
On multiple occasions, I actually got the help from my classmates and a few locals to go out searching for the elusive glowing mushrooms. They are glowing! How hard could it be to find them?! Apparently harder than I thought it would be. I felt so discouraged…and honestly a little embarrassed that I got SO excited at something so unlikely to actually happen.
That night driving home in the car I saw a mushroom-shaped cloud floating across the island. Confirmation bias? NO WAY! It was the mushroom gods telling me to keep going.
One of our friends who worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife called me the next day and said that he wanted to take us to one more place that he thought would be a great location:
- good rainfall = tells the fungi that it’s time to make mushrooms AKA baby-making time!
- thick understory = captures humidity, cools tropical environment, and provides LOTS of organic matter for food (leaves, soil, logs etc.)
Off we went! This section of the jungle was THICK. The kind of path that asks for a machete if you have one.
It was humid and hot, just barely after sunset. We were all being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Bouncing headlamps lead my way down the path as several more were close behind me. I couldn’t tell how far we walked or where we were going. It was beautiful at nighttime, but also a little terrifying.
I heard someone scream my name, “COME HERE, NOW!” I turned around and headed back where I just came from. My classmate was kneeling down a few meters off the path at a tree trunk, sprinkled with glowing specks at the base.
At this moment I was overcome by deep stillness and silence. There are few things are have truly taken my breath away. This one tops them all. I slowly started to walk at the glowing mushroom garden in awe and reverence.
The best way I can describe this experience is like being outside alone and looking up a night sky. A night sky that looks darker than usual with brighter stars than a normal night.
On a superficial layer, I knew that I could research them now that I’ve found some in real life. But on a deeper level, I would be forever changed. Being in the presence of any sort of biological or artistic oddity is fun in the moment and even throughout the rest of the day. But these ephemeral moments don’t compare to seeing something that resonates so deep inside.
It’s this feeling, this experience that connects people with the natural world. It’s these types of experiences that deepen human adventure. And it’s for these reasons that I continue to travel and explore the world.
I’m going to put energy into a new project called “Lit Life” It’s going to be a fun way for you to be mystified and entertained about bioluminescence–animals and fungus that GLOW IN THE FRIGGIN’ DARK.
Although this is getting fueled and inspired by a class project, it’s also a way for me to reflect back 5 years ago when I studied abroad and research glowing mushrooms. I’ve always felt like some story was left untold…
So anywho, if you are interested, stick around over the next few weeks to learn about my experience researching bioluminescent fungi and to learn more about some of these cRaZy creatures: