“Creatures of Light” exhibit opens at Field Museum
View bioluminescent beings that pulse with their own light.
For protection. For hunting. For mating. A variety of reasons cause certain forms of life emit their own light. And maybe (just maybe) one of them is to fascinate us humans? Because that’s the result of “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” a new exhibit co-created by the Field Museum, where it opens March 7, and New York’s American Museum of Natural History (where it premiered last year to rave reviews).
The stunning ability to glow under one’s own power seems very special indeed, since it doesn’t extend to the mammals and birds we typically encounter. But a wide variety of life can do it—mostly fish in the depths of the ocean, where no sunlight can penetrate. “At any given time,” explains the Field's assistant curator of fishes Leo Smith, “there’s more area lit on earth by bioluminescence than by the sun, because there’s so much more deep ocean [where sunlight can’t penetrate] than there is sunshine on any part of the Earth.”
We recently paid Smith a visit at the Field to get some extra insights on a number of the featured creatures.
These friendly flying beetles (pictured above) are bioluminescent superstars, using their yellow glow for courtship and mating. “There are hundreds of different species of firefly,” Smith notes. “You don’t want to mate with other species, so they all have different patterns—some swirl, some strobe. It’s like a mix of Morse code and different movement.” Using flashlights, kids can mimic the different patterns.
The Field will have a live specimen of this creature, also known as the pineapple fish (for its prickly-scaly appearance), from the seas off southern Japan—a feature unique to the Field’s exhibit. “What’s cool about these guys: They use this [glowing red light] to find prey,” Smith says. “I describe it like a sniper scope. They can use it to light things up, but no other creatures see it. A lot of fish can’t even see red.”
The first iteration of the exhibit in New York featured models of deep-ocean hunters, including vampire squid, loosejaw and anglerfish. “They’re beautiful models, but they’re much bigger than life,” Smith says. “In the deep sea, the really scary fish are about the size of a human hand.… So we’ve added videos about how hard it is to collect these fishes, along with a wall of actual specimens.” A preserved anglerfish, whose dorsal-fin spine pulses with light—and cleverly dangles above its massive jaws—will be among them.
These spooky arachnid bodies are on display next to some rock samples—and they glow under black light (which technically makes them biofluorescent, not bioluminescent). “In some cases, we think we know [the ability to glow] is for camouflage or for mating. In other cases, we don’t know why,” Smith says.
Bitter oyster mushrooms
“There’s just a few species [of mushroom] that do this.… There’s probably a correlation to keep them from being eaten,” Smith speculates. “But if I had to guess, the primary reason would be about spreading their spores. If you attract something—fungi often have bright smells or colors—then your spores can travel. It’s like flowers with bees.” The exhibition features them in model form.
These microscopic creatures use their glow to survive attacks. “When you disturb them, they release their bioluminescence. The reason is: If some little transparent predator eats them, it will glow and get eaten in turn. So it’s a learned response.” He shakes a jar of water containing the invisible beings and, suddenly they cast a blue glow in the water. “Docents will have little heat-sealed baggies [full of dinoflagellates] that they can show around” during peak exhibit times, he explains.
“Creatures of Light” runs March 7 through September 8 at the Field Museum. See Calendar.