Bioluminescent animals are some of the coolest creatures on earth, and it’s not just because they glow. It’s why they glow that makes them so amazing! From fish to fungi, these incredible organisms use their natural light to attract food, mates, and even use their bioluminescence for protection. The list of bioluminescent animals that populate our world is pretty long, so we came up with a list of our favorite 10 Unbelievably Cool Bioluminescent Organisms to introduce you to some of the most fascinating light producing specimens on Earth.
1. Clusterwink Snail – Hinea brasiliana
These small deepwater snails, found in the shorelines of Australia, have more than just a cool name – they also have an amazing shell that shines brightly to warn off potential predators. Scientists believe that clusterwink snails use bioluminesce to appear bigger than they really are when predators (like crabs) lurk around them. Marine biologists have recently discovered that the clusterwink shell helps disperse and amplify the light made by the snail inside.
2. Hawaiian Bobtail Squid – Euprymna scolopes
Although the Hawaiian bobtail squid is not itself bioluminescent, it does have an awesome way of emitting light. These cephalopods have a symbiotic relationship with light-producing bacteria, meaning that the squid and bacteria help each other survive in the wild. When born, the Hawaiian bobtail squid produces mucus around their light organ to capture the bioluminescent bacteria. The squid releases the bacteria in the morning so they can replenish themselves and by nighttime the squid’s light organ is full again. The bacteria camouflages the Hawaiian bobtail squid from predators by producing light that hides the squid’s moonlight shadow. In return, the squid feeds the bacteria with a mixture of sugar and amino acids. Now that’s true friendship!
3. New Zealand Glow Worm – Arachnocampa luminosa
You can witness an incredible light show inside the Waitomo caves in New Zealand. The cause of this event is made possible by the bioluminescent light of the New Zealand Glow Worm. This unique “worm” is actually a larva that produces a silky, mucus-covered thread that hangs from the ceilings of caves to catch insects. Scientists believe that these glow worms use their bluish light to attract insects into the cave and onto their sticky threads. Another interesting trait of the New Zealand glow worm is its life cycle: The glow worm spends most of its life as a larva, about 6 to 12 months. Then, the larva will start its pupa stage creating a cocoon, glowing periodically for 1 to 2 weeks, at which point a gnat emerges for the sole purpose of reproducing for 2 to 3 days.
4. Dana Octopus Squid – Taningia danae
The Tanigia danae uses giant photophores – light producing organs at the end of its arms – to stun predators and prey alike. The Dana octopus squid can grow to be 7 feet in length, and its photophores grow to be about the size of lemons! These deep sea creatures are pretty shy, so scientists have had some difficulty studying them. But a few years ago, Japanese scientists were able to film this amazing animal with the help of a remotely operated underwater vehicle named Deep Discovery. Check out this incredible giant squid in the video taken by Deep Discovery for yourself!
5. Velvet Belly Lantern Shark – Etmopterus spinax
A member of the dogfish shark family, the velvet belly lantern shark is only about 2 feet in length. These small sharks were made famous by researchers in 2011 because it was discovered that this shark does not use bacteria or chemical reactions for biolumination, but instead, they rely on nerves and hormones to control their light. It is believed that lantern sharks use their bioluminescence and their naturally shimmering skin to hide from predators, as well as attract mates. Researchers hope to someday learn exactly which substances fuel the shark’s bioluminescence.
6. Hatchetfish – Sternoptyx obscura
The hatchetfish gets its name from its unique shape: Its large head and small tail looks like the outline of a hatchet. Hatchetfish grow to be about 3 inches in length and have big round eyes that point upward so that they can find prey, namely plankton and shrimp. But, just because they are hunters does not mean that they are safe from predators. This is why hatchetfish have evolved bioluminescent underbellies so that they can hide from predators that look up to the light for food. Hatchetfish have the ability to control the intensity and color of light from their photophores to match the light above them for maximum camouflage.
7. Bamboo Coral – Keratoisis flexibilis
Coral does not look like an animal, but it is! In fact, corals are made from groups of animals called polyps that use limestone in the ocean water to create a hard shell to protect their soft bodies. Coral is known for its beautiful bright colors, but bamboo coral takes its beauty to another level. Blue light shimmers throughout the entire length of the bamboo coral when it is touched. Unfortunately, scientist still do not know why bamboo coral produce their bioluminescent light. Check out the video to see this amazing light show!
8. Atolla Jellyfish – Atolla wyvillei
The atolla jellyfish is also known as the “alarm jellyfish” because it uses bioluminescence when it is attacked. But what makes atolla so interesting is that its lights are not used to scare off or confuse its predators, but to call other predators to prey on its attackers. For this jellyfish, bioluminescence is not just a mode of protection; it functions as a way to communicate with other fish.
9. Mycenoid Fungi
Brazil is home to the most bioluminescent mushroom species in the world. Biologists discovered 8 new luminescent species of mushrooms in Brazil in 2008 alone, during an expedition funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). It found that 70% of mycenoid fungi (white spore mushrooms) are bioluminescent, making it the most diverse of all 4 mushroom lineages known to glow. Biologists who study fungi, known as mycologists, still do not fully understand how mushrooms create light, but they note that the chemical process is similar to that of bioluminescent bacteria like dinoflagellates. Mycologists believe that some mushrooms glow to attract animals to help spread spores, while other mushrooms use their luminescence as a defense mechanism, calling the attention of the animals that prey on the insects that feed on the mushrooms – a lot like our friend the Atolla jellyfish, mentioned above.
10. Dinoflagellates – Pyrocystis fusiformis
Dinoflagellates are an incredible species of plankton because they have an internal clock that tells them when to photosynthesize and and when to become bioluminescent. These unicellular organisms use the sun to create energy in much the same way plants do, and they use their bioluminescence at night as an alarm when they’re in danger. Over half of the oxygen on Earth is made from phytoplankton, so to all you dinoflagellates out there: thank you for your beautiful light and for the air we breathe.
Experience the Magic of Bioluminescence
Did you know that you can hold the blue light of dinoflagellates in your hands? A Southern California company called BioPop created some really cool products that allow you to hold the brilliance of dinoflagellate bioluminescence in the palm of your hand. Dino Pet is a fun way for kids and adults to learn about some of the bioluminescent wonders of our world. The Dino Sphere and the limited edition Art Deco Sphere are fantastic living accessories to accent your home’s decor while showing off the majesty of dinoflagellate bioluminescence to your friends and family at your next party. Be sure to check out Biopop to learn more about dinoflagellates.