Tag Archives: science communication

Why the f*%# do animals glow?!

I’ll get to the point: animals and fungi glow because they like to rave throughout the night.

jk.

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.

anglerfish with bioluminescent bulb hanging from forehead

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.

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U impressed bro?

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.

cat with glowing eyes
Yep, that’s tots bioluminescence.

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.
bioluminescent barfing fish

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!”

 

 

bioluminescent firefly up close micro
oh hai  (0_0)

fireflies-in-the-forests-of-nagoya-city

There are many more animals that are bioluminescent for the same basic reasons: to attract mates or defend against predators.

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Glow worms in cave
bioluminscent jellyfish in ocean
Comb Jelly
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Bioluminescent millipede

Zooplankton2_300

glowworm closeup
Glowworms

Bolitaena_pygmaea_femaleTomopteriskils

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Bioluminscent plankton in ocean

bioluminescent insect gif

bioluminescent plankton in waves along shore

 

 

 

 

 

The night I first saw bioluminescent mushrooms

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!) Maybe this isn’t completely relevant, but it just made this new discovery THAT much more exciting.

psychedelic mushroom house in mystical landIt 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.

bioluminescent fungi mycena chlorophos

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.

bioluminscent mushrooms in the dark

 

What is ‘Lit Life’?

Hello!

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…

 

Bioluminescent fungi! Panelllus stipticus

 

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:

bioluminscent jellyfish
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — Jelly fish swim, Aug. 20, in a Alaska SeaLife Center aquarium. (U.S. Air Force photo/David Bedard)