The Natural Wonder of Bioluminescence

The Natural Wonder of Bioluminescence

What is Bioluminescence?

This amazing phenomenon is caused by the production and emission of light by marine vertebrates, marine invertebrates, fungi, microorganisms, and bioluminescent bacteria. A well-known example of this process is fireflies!


Bioluminescence occurs through a chemical reaction that produces light energy within an organism's body. For a reaction to occur, a species must contain luciferin or host a bacteria that does. When this molecule reacts with oxygen, it produces light. For example, the Hawaiian bobtail squid has a special light organ that is colonized by bioluminescent bacteria within hours of its birth. Depending on immediate needs, animals can closely control when they light up by regulating their chemistry and brain processes. Bioluminescence can also be used for communication and camouflage purposes. Moreover, some fish dangle a lighted lure in front of their mouths to attract prey, while some squid shoots out bioluminescent liquid to confuse predators. Worms and tiny crustaceans also use bioluminescence to attract mates using signals.

Who Makes It?

Bioluminescence is found in many marine organisms such as bacteria, algae, jellyfish, worms, crustaceans, sea stars, fish, and sharks to name just a few. And an incredible 76% of ocean animals are bioluminescent! At least 1,500 species of fish luminesce including anything from sharks to dragonfish. On the other hand, most deep-sea animals produce some bioluminescent light, but the phenomenon is still very common on the surface. For instance, small planktonic surface dwellers called single-celled dinoflagellates are bioluminescent. When conditions are right, dinoflagellates bloom in dense layers at the surface of the water, causing the ocean to take on a reddish-brown color in daylight and a sparkly blue as they move in the waves at night. On the other hand, over a mile below the ocean's surface, the anglerfish uses a bright lure to bring prey within range of its sharp teeth.


We humans can witness this natural phenomenon in the Summer months when there is lots of bioluminescence in the water, usually from an algae bloom of plankton. The bioluminescent sea will glow when it’s disturbed by a wave breaking or a splash in the water at night. Some of the best spots include California, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Thailand, Maldives, New Zealand, and Australia. As one can see, this phenomenon takes place worldwide and I even saw it when visiting Columbia!


National Geographic



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