Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence, or the ability of an organism to create light, is one of nature’s most amazing phenomena, seemingly drawn more from science fiction than science and natural history. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the animals living in the pelagic zone (water column) are bioluminescent. However, information on bioluminescence in the deep-sea benthos (organisms that live on the ocean bottom) is sparse.

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Content Essays Related to Bioluminescence

Background essays are written by explorers involved in a specific expedition in order to provide further background on specific topic areas associated with the expedition. Below are selected essays and a few other web resources focused on bioluminescence.

Ocean Exploration Fact: What is Bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence, or the ability of an organism to create light, is one of nature’s most amazing phenomena, seemingly drawn more from science fiction than science and natural history.

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Ocean Exploration Fact: How Do Living Organisms Produce Light?

While deep areas of the ocean are almost completely dark, light still plays an important role in these environments. The ability of an organism to create its own light could put it at a competitive advantage in situations such as during the hunt for food and evading predators.

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Defensive spew bioluminescence in the shrimp, Parapandalus.

Bioluminescence

In the ocean, most types of animals – ranging from bacteria to sharks – include bioluminescent members. This essay discusses the chemistry, mysteries, distribution, and evolution of bioluminescence and shares many of the associated questions that have yet to be answered.

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The e-jelly.

Medusa Lander

The Medusa Lander uses red light illumination that is invisible to most deep-sea inhabitants and an intensified camera that amplifies both this dim illumination as well as any bioluminescence.

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Glyphocrangon on the seafloor.

Vision in the Deep

Vision and bioluminescence play important roles in deep-sea organisms' survival, including predator defense, feeding, and communication, so it is important to identify the specifics of how these organisms "see." In this essay, scientists describe the physiological and molecular experiments used to better understand vision in a pitch black environment.

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Decapod diversity on a single rock.

Crabs, Lobsters and Shrimp, Oh My!: The Evolution of Light Detection in the Deep Sea

"There is no other way to say it.....Glowing things are cool." In this essay, an explorer tells of the excitement of being on a deep-sea shrimp hunt and her attraction to mystery, challenges, and unknowns of what is truly the last unexplored frontier on Earth.

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Deep Light

Light conditions affect the functionality of both human eyes and fish eyes. Human eyes, for example, are functional in bright sunlight at high noon and under dim starlight on a moonless night. The eyes of deep-sea fishes show remarkable adaptations and may be 10 to 100 times more sensitive than ours.

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Visual Ecology and Bioluminescence

Many deep-sea benthic animals have very large eyes, but the sensitivity level of these eyes, as well as what they are used for, has remained a mystery. Scientists hypothesize that the huge eyes of deep-sea benthic creatures are adapted for viewing bioluminescence. But little is known about bioluminescence on the deep-sea floor, and we know virtually nothing about the visual systems of these deep-sea inhabitants.

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ORCA’s Eye in the Sea

To observe bioluminescence unobtrusively in different benthic (sea-bottom) habitats, scientists deployed the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) camera system, called Eye-in-the-Sea (EITS).

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Lessons

This section provides direct access to selected lessons about bioluminescence developed by scientists and educators during Ocean Explorer field seasons. These lessons are geared toward students in Grades 5-12. Presented here as Web-based education materials, each lesson corresponds with a specific ocean exploration and can be supplemented with daily logs prepared by scientists and educators during each mission at sea. Additional lessons on bioluminescence can be found using the Lesson Plan search feature.

Older lessons are aligned to the National Science Education Standards and newer lessons support the Next Generation Science Standards (and their associated Common Core Standards). All lessons from 2006 to the present also support the Ocean Literacy Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts. Note: The web links provided in lessons are verified at the time of publication, but over time, some links may change or become obsolete.

A Bioluminescent Gallery

Grades: 5-6

Focus
Bioluminescence in deep-ocean organisms

In this activity, students compare and contrast chemiluminescence, bioluminescence, fluorescence, and phosphorescence and explain at least three ways in which the ability to produce light may be useful to deep-sea organisms.

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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Grades: 5-6

Focus:
Light, color, and camouflage in deep-ocean organisms

In this activity, students explain light in terms of electromagnetic waves and explain the relationship between color and wavelength; compare and contrast color related to wavelength with color perceived by biological vision systems; explain how color and light may be important to deep-sea organisms, even under conditions of near-total darkness; and predict the perceived color of objects when illuminated by light of certain wavelengths.

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All That Glitters

Grades: 7-8

Focus
Absorption, reflection, and scattering of light in the deep sea; bioluminescence

In this activity, students will learn that white light (visible light) is comprised of all colors of the spectrum; that the quantity of light decreases with increasing depth in the ocean; that the quality of light changes with increasing depth; that red light penetrates water the least and that blue light penetrates water the most; that many ocean organisms are bioluminescent; that bioluminescent light is usually blue; and why organisms bioluminesce.

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Light at the Bottom of the Deep, Dark Ocean

Grades: 7-8

Focus
Adaptations of deepwater organisms

In this activity, students will participate in an inquiry activity; relate the structure of an appendage to its function; and describe how a deepwater organism responds to its environment without bright light.

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Living Light

Grades: 9-12

Focus
Bioluminescence

In this activity, students explain the overall process of bioluminescence, including the role of luciferins, luciferases, and co-factors; discuss at least three phyla that include bioluminescent organisms; discuss at least three ways that bioluminescence may benefit deep-sea organisms and give an example of at least one organism that actually receives each of the benefits discussed; and create a scientific poster to communicate technical information.

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To See or Not To See

Grades: 9-12

Focus
Bioluminescence, color, and camouflage in deep-ocean organisms

In this activity, students identify and discuss key factors that determine the effectiveness of color camouflage in pelagic and benthic habitats; describe how ambient light changes with increasing depth in the ocean; explain how the wavelength of light that illuminates an organism may determine the most effective camouflage coloration; and explain how an organism that has effective camouflage coloration under ambient illumination may not be effectively camouflaged when it is illuminated by bioluminescence.

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Multimedia

Multimedia Discovery Missions (MDMs) are interactive multimedia presentations and learning activities that address topics ranging from Chemosynthesis and Hydrothermal Vent Life and Deep-sea Benthos to Food, Water, and Medicine from the Sea. Each MDM includes a seven to nine-minute animated Lesson, a four to five-minute animation on Global Impacts, and three interactive activities.

launch Deep-Sea Benthos mission

Below are links to a few selected images and video of bioluminescence from previous Ocean Explorer expeditions.

Past Ocean Exploration Expeditions Related to Bioluminescence

OceanAGE Careers Connections

The Ocean Careers to Inspire Another Generation of Explorers, or OceanAGE Careers webpage, invites students to learn about the talented people who explore our ocean planet. From underwater pilots to research scientists, these marine explorers provide students with first-hand knowledge of exciting careers through videotaped interviews and written profiles. Here is one scientist who studies bioluminescence.

Dr. Edith A. Widder
Senior Scientist
Studies bioluminescence – how and why there are so many creatures in the ocean that make light.

The above items are only a selection of bioluminescence content on our website.

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