News

    'Creatures of Light' Glow in New Exhibit

    New York museum explores bioluminescent animals, plants

    An oversized model of a jack-o-lantern mushroom, which grows on decaying wood in the forests of eastern North America. In one of these types of mushrooms, the honey mushroom, root-like branches that run through the wood glow with a light known as foxfire.
    An oversized model of a jack-o-lantern mushroom, which grows on decaying wood in the forests of eastern North America. In one of these types of mushrooms, the honey mushroom, root-like branches that run through the wood glow with a light known as foxfire.

    Multimedia

    Audio

    Of all the wondrous survival strategies nature’s creatures have evolved, one of the most dazzling is the ability of some animals to generate light to find their prey, avoid becoming prey and to attract a mate.

    A museum exhibit in New York explores this ability, known as bioluminescence.     

    The American Museum of Natural History’s “Creatures of Light” exhibit features jellyfish that glow green, anglerfish whose lantern-like bulbs dangle from their foreheads and luminous glowworms that hang mucus-like strands from cave ceilings to attract and ensnare their prey.

    “Some of the stuff is just incredible,” says museum provost Michael Novacek, who's especially intrigued by the bioluminescent creatures that inhabit the deep oceans. “They are probably the most inventive of all the bioluminescent creatures because they have to be. Because it’s totally dark. So that’s probably where the greatest potential for discovery is, too. There are so many things down there we haven’t even described.”

    The flickering glow comes from thousands of live single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates. Tiny particles in each cell contain chemicals that mix and make light when the water is shaken or stirred.
    The flickering glow comes from thousands of live single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates. Tiny particles in each cell contain chemicals that mix and make light when the water is shaken or stirred.

    Up to 90 percent of the habitable earth is underwater, and most of the animals that live in the pitch black water below depths of 700 meters are bioluminescent. That’s where the anglerfish and hatchetfish live.

    Exhibit curator John Sparks is a marine biologist who specializes in pony fish, which live closer to the surface. They can emit light during the daytime that matches their physical background and makes them virtually invisible to predators.  

    “We’ve been able to reconstruct the evolution of the light organ system in this group from something very simple - just a simple out-pouching around the esophagus - to this elaborate system we see today," he says, "where the males shoot lights out of all different sides, their head, their flank, their gills, their mouth, and each species has a specific pattern it emits.”

    Many bioluminescent animals use light to deceive their prey. The glowing pattern on the underbelly of the large cookie cutter shark, for example, mimics the rippling play of sun and moonlight on the surface of the water. From below, potential predators can mistake the small dark patches between the shark’s lights for small, edible fish. When a fish moves in for what it thinks will be a quick meal, it can become a meal for the shark instead.

    Other animals, such as the tube shoulder fish, shoot bioluminescent fluid from their sides. Cardinal fish startle away predators by vomiting jets of brilliant liquid. And even bitten-off chunks of sea cucumbers stay luminous in the mouth of its predator.

    Bioluminescent mushrooms
    Bioluminescent mushrooms

    “So then the predator is now lit up and has to get away to avoid being eaten by something else,” Sparks says.

    Some “creatures of light,” like dinoflagellates, live on the water’s surface. Their blue-green sparkle is familiar to nighttime swimmers in the shallow bays of Puerto Rico and other tropical locales.

    The exhibit also showcases some of the many bioluminescent organisms that live on land and light up in a variety of colors. Dismalite gnats glow blue. Brilliant mushrooms from the American northeast radiate an intense yellow. A giant model of a millipede shows off the many-legged insect’s blue-green luminescence.

    And, of course, there are the fireflies. Visitors can see a sampling of the world’s more than 2,000 firefly species, including a replica of one common North American firefly that museum artists have rendered 210 times its actual size.

    University of Florida firefly expert Marc Branham, a consultant for the exhibition, has been fascinated since childhood by the light of the firefly. 

    Photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu combined slow–shutter speed photos to produce stunning images of firefly signals. This image was photographed in Okayama prefecture, Japan.
    Photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu combined slow–shutter speed photos to produce stunning images of firefly signals. This image was photographed in Okayama prefecture, Japan.

    “It is produced in these very specialized organs in their body that are photic organs, some of which are so highly modified that they have a reflective layer in the back, sort of like a headlight on a car and they push every photon out of the photic organ," Branham says. "It has been shaped through the millennia to be as efficient as possible.”

    Each species of firefly uses a unique flashing pattern to attract its mates.  

    “But there are also other species where the female will give the flash pattern of another species to call in those males which she is not going to mate with but which she feeds on," Branham says. "So there are ‘femme fatales’ in the firefly world.”

    The “Creatures of Light” exhibit continues at the American Museum of Natural History in New York until early 2013. The show is drawing large crowds, and the reviews so far have been glowing.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora