Weird Science - Glowing Sea Creatures

by Kris_Heeter

Find out what's lurking in the deep sea. Bioluminescent creatures of all kinds!

Creatures of the deep sea

It's like something out of a horror flick...

Odd shaped creatures of all shapes and sizes, glowing in the dark.  Some elegantly gliding through the water and while others pulsating light as if they are trying to contact aliens from another planet.  Even just seeing these in video, it's a mesmerizing and puzzling site to behold.

Only in recent years has the deep sea's glowing community been unveiled - the complexity is mind boggling.  It's now come to light (forgive the pun) that over 90% of these creatures glow or in more proper terms, "bioluminescence".

And I guarantee, most of you have never heard of any of these creatures before.

Ready to take trip into the abyss with me?  Let's go...

The glowing seas

My first encounter with glowing sea creatures was off the during a research conference on the east coast year ago.  (Keep in mind that I'm a mid-west gal, so trips to the coast were rare!)

During some down time late in one evening, we headed out to a pier and sat.  Within minutes, we began to see the water start to "tingle" with flashing green lights.   Small bioluminescent squid were everywhere, giving us an incredible light show! 

Squid are just one of many sea creatures that have the ability to glow.  Jelly fish, black dragon fish, tube worms are just a few of the exotic creatures that have bioluminescence.  Edith Widder, cofounder and senior scientist of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, estimates that perhaps as many as 90% of the deep sea inhabitants may glow.

Why these creatures pulsate light and/or glow has remained a mystery to scientists.  For some, it could be a mechanism for warding off predators, for others a means of attracting mates or maybe even a way to attract food.

Symbiotic glowing relationships

As more research is being done, it's becoming clear that the bioluminescence in some of these amazing creatures may, in some cases, become coming from some "friends" that have hitched a ride.  Symbiotic relationships are quite common in the biological world - two organisms living together that are mutually benefiting each other is some way.

This is believed to be true in the case of some bioluminscent squid.  They harbor bacteria in their light organ.  It is the bacteria, rather the squid itself that creates the glowing light.  The bacteria benefit by gaining nutrients that the jelly fish doesn't need and the jelly fish appear to benefit from the bacteria as a means of warding off and keeping any harmful bacteria from colonizing.

Take a deep dive in the comfort of your own home

If you find these creatures fascinating, then take a deep dive!  It'll have to be in the comfort of your own home.  Access to many of these deep sea creatures can only be enjoyed through technology and research expeditions.

I personally recommend the National Geographic documentary "Aliens of the Deep".  It will take you miles below sea level to hydrothermal vents and volcanic hot springs.  It's an amazing expedition that is worth watching.  It's a great for a family movie night!

Updated: 01/14/2012, Kris_Heeter
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Kris_Heeter on 06/29/2012

@Tolovaj - yes, it is being used in genetically modified crops now!

The genes that cause fluorescence in species like these deep sea animals have been isolated and have been used to tag genes in other non-fluorescent animals and plants for over a decade now.

Up until recently it has been used purely for research as a tag to follow proteins around in cells or body. However, it is now showing up in commercial applications.

Unfortunately whether there will be side effects to being exposed to these fluorescent tags on the long term is unknown.

Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the conversation!

Tolovaj on 06/29/2012

Isn't amazing how much more we know about the universe, sometimes about celestial bodies light years from us, than about our own sea?
Bioluminescence is fascinating and although not fully explored yet, I have read it is already in use in genetic modified crop...
Thanks for sharing so impressive article!

Kris_Heeter on 01/19/2012

@Angel and @Rose - thanks for stopping by.

Rose, in some of these cases, the bacteria can be isolated (or the genes can) and the genes responsible can be studied and engineered to be used in different context. Sometimes the bacteria will not survive without the host. It's a pretty fascinating field (bioluminescence).

New medical techniques have been developed utilizing these glowing properties of genes.

Rose on 01/17/2012

Amazing. How on earth do the bacteria produce the energy to give off light and can you get them to replicate the effect in a laboratory?

Angel on 01/15/2012

This is fascinating. I can't wait to share this with my two older children for a bit of education on deep sea creatures. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this. I look forward to more of your articles.

Kris_Heeter on 01/15/2012

kajohu - thanks for stopping by. It is pretty amazing to think that so many creatures may do this and so very little is known about the mechanism and why. It's very cool!

kajohu on 01/14/2012

Wow, this is fascinating! I knew that some sea creatures bioluminesce, but didn't know that maybe 90% of deep sea creatures may glow. I also think it's interesting that it might be bacteria within the creatures that cause the bioluminescence.

Kris_Heeter on 01/14/2012

Terri - thanks for the comment and stopping by and sharing with the boys. They are truly fascinating creatures to watch!

TerriRexson on 01/14/2012

When my boys were babies we started watching nature documentaries with them and they became fascinated with nature. Sea creatures are a favorite, probably because they are so different and well, weird. I'll pop back when they're around and share the videos with them.

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