What are Some Bioluminescent Animals?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Bioluminescent animals can be found in at least half a dozen animal phyla. This includes bioluminescent cnidarians (jellyfish, coral, and sea-pens), ctenophores ("comb jellies"), arthropods (fireflies, glow worms, certain fungus gnats, millipedes, and centipedes), certain annelids, one species of snail, marine molluscs including certain clams, nudibranchs, octopuses, and squids, various fish, some brittle stars, a group of small crustaceans, all krill, 65 species of mushrooms, protists called dinoflagellates, and a large family of bioluminescent bacteria. The last three aren't actually bioluminescent animals, but they are bioluminescent organisms.

Fireflies are a type of bioluminescent anthropod.
Fireflies are a type of bioluminescent anthropod.

Bioluminescence occurs in certain animals where chemical energy (in the form of ATP) is converted into light energy, usually peaking around one portion of the spectrum, making it one color. Green is by far the most common color used by terrestrial bioluminescent animals, while blue is the favored color among bioluminescent animals in the sea. Every color on the spectrum has a bioluminescent animal or protein associated with it, but most colors are quite rare. The difference in favored colors on the land and sea exists because different colors stand out in each environment, and the visual systems of animals in each environment are tuned to the local colors.

Some squids are bioluminescent.
Some squids are bioluminescent.

There are five accepted theories on why bioluminescent animals exist. These are that bioluminescence can perform the functions of camouflage, attraction (of prey, predators of would-be predators, and mates), repulsion by way of confusion, communication between bioluminescent bacteria (quorum sensing), and rarely, the illumination of prey (used by the Black Dragonfish). It can be hard to explain why certain organisms are bioluminescent, while with others, the reasons may be obvious.

Jellyfish living in the aphotic zone of the ocean are bioluminescent.
Jellyfish living in the aphotic zone of the ocean are bioluminescent.

For instance, in some species, like fireflies, bioluminescence is so integrated with the organism that it is an integral part of its lifestyle -- firefly larvae use it to repel predators, while adults use it to attract prey and signal to mates. Turn on a light bulb in an insect-infested area and you'll see the benefit of luminescence to attracting prey. Fireflies are extremely efficient at converting chemical energy into light -- they do it with an efficiency of 90%. In contrast, a typical incandescent light bulb is only 10% efficient.

There are 65 species of bioluminescent mushrooms.
There are 65 species of bioluminescent mushrooms.

Another common group of bioluminescent organisms are bioluminescent fungi. These glow green to attract nocturnal animals to aid in spore dispersal.

Green is the most common color of light used by terrestrial animals.
Green is the most common color of light used by terrestrial animals.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

CopperPipe

I had always wondered by some prey animals were bioluminescent -- it always seemed like rather a counterproductive strategy.

But now I can see how they would use that for distraction or camouflage -- thanks for cluing me in!

pharmchick78

I can't believe how efficient fireflies are at converting energy -- that's amazing. I wonder if that applies for bioluminescent saltwater animals as well, like plankton and other animals of the ocean.

I'm not really up on my marine biology, land animals are more my thing, but now I'm really curious about how these bioluminescent ocean animals work.

TunaLine

What would be some Pacific ocean animals that are bioluminescent? I've been looking down lists of bioluminescent animals, and thus far I haven't found any that are specifically part of the sealife animal populations of the Pacific.

Do you know of any?

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