10 brief facts on bioluminescence

We all get excited thinking about bioluminescence in nature. Ironically, that excitement is only one of the reasons animals glow like an elf in Middle Earth. Here are some ‘basics on bioluminescence’ you can share with your friends and family the next time you all ogle a firefly and wonder ‘why?’.

    1. Insects (e.g., fireflies, glow worms) and deep sea ocean animals (e.g., squid, hatchetfish) aren’t the only ones that emit light. Many plants (e.g., jack-o’-lantern mushroom, algae) also produce bioluminescence.
    2. Bioluminescence is light emitting from a living organism. Bioluminescence is produced through a chemical reaction, which is what sets is apart from fluorescence or phosphorescence.
    3. Luciferin and luciferase are the two chemicals that must be present for an organism to luminesce. Luciferin produces the light and luciferase is the catalyst. Life in the sea most often use coelenterazine, a type of luciferin.
    4. Sailors commonly saw waves glowing in the wake of ships. This was caused from dinoflagellates, a single-celled algae, which glows when its startled.
    5. Anglerfish use a long illuminated appendage, called a protuberance, to attract young and vulnerable prey. Luring prey is one way bioluminescence is used to an animal’s advantage. They may also use it to stun prey or to attract or recognize a mate.
    6. Conversely, many animals use bioluminescence as a defense mechanism. They’ll cleverly create smoke screens or burglar alarms, as well as counterilluminate or startle predators.
    7. Some animals that luminesce use it defensively and offensively.
    8. Sperm whales, the deepest divers of all the whales, depend on bioluminescence to help locate food. Echolocation is also key to locating food.
    9. The U.S. Navy tapped into the science community for help to develop products that monitor bioluminescence because bioluminescent algae have been known to endanger military missions.
    10. The pulsing light of creatures found in the deep sea is “perhaps the most common form of communication found on our planet”. That phrase was from a video (below) which takes us on a visual journey of what the first deep sea explorer, William Bebe, described in 1934 from his expedition off the coast of Bermuda. This video was produced by National Geographic.

What is red tide?

a red tide

a red tide (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About six years ago I went to a wedding on the Gulf of Mexico which was extraordinary except for the occurrence of red tide. Don’t get me wrong, the guests and bride and groom all had a fabulous time despite the red tide. How did it affect us? We were not permitted to swim in the ocean and made the best out of it by playing run the bases on the beach. We could only do this for a little while since it actually affected our breathing and so we took a lot of breaks for margaritas.

It got me wondering what is a red tide? From my research it seems that red tides are not always red and have nothing to do with tides. Scientists are trying to wash away the term red tide and use the term harmful algae bloom (HAB) which explains a bit better about what happens during these occurrences. During a HAB on the Gulf of Mexico there is a high concentration of microscopic marine algae known as Karenia brevis. This is not the only algal culprit to an HAB, but, it is the most frequent. In the Gulf of Mexico the algae Alexandrium fundyense has been known to cause serious damage to local fisheries. In low concentrations these algae is not harmful. But, with high concentrations fish suffocate after it paralyzes their central nervous system. Also, many shellfish that filter water can accumulate the toxins and become inedible to eat.

How harmful algal blooms occur is still under debate. It can be a natural or man-made occurrence.

Do you have another great question? Email info@beachchairscientist.com and let me know what you always ponder while digging your toes in the sand!

A Few Lines from Rehoboth Beach by Fleda Brown

Dear friend, you were right: the smell of fish and foam
and algae makes one green smell together. It clears
my head. It empties me enough to fit down in my own

skin for a while, singleminded as a surfer. The first
day here, there was nobody, from one distance
to the other. Rain rose from the waves like steam,

dark lifted off the dark. All I could think of
were hymns, all I knew the words to: the oldest
motions tuning up in me. There was a horseshoe crab

shell, a translucent egg sack, a log of a tired jetty,
and another, and another. I walked miles, holding
my suffering deeply and courteously, as if I were holding

a package for somebody else who would come back
like sunlight. In the morning, the boardwalk opened
wide and white with sun, gulls on one leg in the slicks.

Cold waves, cold air, and people out in heavy coats,
arm in arm along the sheen of waves. A single boy
in shorts rode his skimboard out thigh-high, making

intricate moves across the March ice-water. I thought
he must be painfully cold, but, I hear you say, he had
all the world emptied, to practice his smooth stand.

Read more about this author here.