Bioluminescence: How some animals glow

Bioluminescence occurs when organisms emit light in their environment. Here we explain what types of animals can glow and what chemical processes are behind them.

The term bioluminescence is derived from the Greek word for “life” (Sirand the Latin word for “light”lumen) together or together. Organisms that can generate light are considered bioluminescent. They often have special photosensitive organs for this. But there are also animals that do not glow by themselves, but are able to do this only in the case of coexistence with other life forms. So bioluminescence can have different causes and also serve different purposes.

Luminous animals are mainly found in the deep sea

Bioluminescence occurs, for example, in different species of jellyfish.
(Photo: CC0/Pixabay/PublicDomainPictures)

Most bioluminescent animals are fish or other marine organisms. Many luminous species live in the deep sea in particular. The most famous of these fish is the frog, the unicorn, or the tubefish, which includes the seahorse. But also squids such as vampire squid or magic lamps, whose name actually refers to their luster, are bioluminescent. In addition, there are many luminous jellyfish, luminous shrimp and luminous corals. There are even examples of bioluminescence among unicellular organisms: the so-called sea glow causes glowing plankton, for example.

Luminous animals are less common on Earth. Bioluminescence does not generally occur in terrestrial vertebrates. Among insects, there are some types of firefly, especially this one firefly or tail spring.

In principle, there are no bioluminescent plants either. However, recently researchers have been toying with the idea of ​​transferring the natural luster of bioluminescent animals to plants, thus replacing street lamps with glowing trees, for example. However, such plans are not yet fully developed and are the subject of ethical debate.

In addition to bioluminescent animals, there are also some types of fungi in nature that can glow. They often have ringing names such as “yellow honey mushroom” or “shiny olive tree mushroom”. There are currently 71 known species of bioluminescent fungi. They make up only a relatively small part of the approximately 100,000 species of mushrooms found worldwide.

Bioluminescence: How Animals Produce Light

There is no general answer to the question of how bioluminescence works because there are different ways in which it works. In general, biologists distinguish between primary bioluminescence and secondary bioluminescence:

  1. Primary bioluminescence It usually arises from a chemical reaction in the animal’s body. The chemicals that play a role vary across animal species. In fireflies and many other species, the substance responsible is luciferin, a carboxylic acid that reacts with the enzyme luciferin. The body glow is created through the oxidation process that is triggered. Another compound associated with bioluminescence is the photosynthetic protein aequorin. will pass Calcium The activator then emits a blue light. The luminous jellyfish is especially famous for this process Ikorea Victoriawho lives in the pacific ocean.
  2. An example of secondary bioluminescence It is a frog fish. It does not light up on its own, but depends on the so-called photosynthetic bacteria, with which they live in symbiosis. It provides them with nourishment and protection, and in return they maintain its shine.

Primary bioluminescence occurs more frequently than secondary. Thus, most bioluminescent animals are able to glow themselves and do not depend on a partnership with other organisms.

Why do animals actually glow?

Male fireflies follow the torches of wingless females.
Male fireflies follow the torches of wingless females.
(Photo: CC0/Pixabay/fjcorado)

Not only does bioluminescence work differently, but there are also many reasons why animals glow in the first place. Often the glow is not limited to a specific purpose, but can have many advantages at the same time.

Vivid animals often use their luminous function as a lure. Who gets attracted varies depending on the context. The frogfish, for example, is famous for attracting prey with its glowing “rod”. The glow can also be useful when looking for a partner. This is the case with fireflies, for example: flightless females use their light as a way to attract male attention and successfully mate. Such light signals can also serve communication purposes in other animal species.

However, glare can perform the exact opposite function. Rather than attract potential prey, its purpose is to intimidate, distract, or intimidate predators. The researchers studied this deterrent mechanism in more detail, for example in the case of the California centipede species Motyxia.

Bioluminescence: a working ecosystem is important

Bioluminescent species are usually very specially adapted to their ecosystem. It is therefore important for its existence that this ecosystem remains in balance.

This is particularly evident in cases of secondary bioluminescence, where coexistence is essential for glow production. Animals such as frogfish depend on special types of bacteria found in the water. If these bacteria are missing, this also affects the ability of their symbionts to survive – just one example of the many complex relationships in a sea ecosystem.

This ecosystem through the day OverfishingAnd plastic waste And other man-made causes are increasingly at risk. It is critical to reduce harm and reflect on your own consumer behavior. In everyday life, for example, you can help relieve the oceans by selling products in them Avoid microplastics. If you do not want to do without fish, then you should make sure that you get it from a sustainable source as much as possible so that you do not contribute to overfishing. Tips and hints can be found in our general article: Eating fish: you should definitely pay attention to that.

By the way: Changes in the environment can negatively affect bioluminescent animals on Earth. So did fireflies through light pollution Difficulty finding a partner in populated areas.

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