“Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence”

The American Museum of Natural History puts glowing species in the spotlight.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

    Fireflies

  • Photograph: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

    Panellus stipticus

  • Photograph: © American Museum of Natural History, Denis Finnin

    Dinoflagellates

  • Photograph: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

    Angler Fish

Photograph: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

Fireflies


Humans may have invented the lightbulb and fireworks, but we’re not the brightest organisms out there. A new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” opening Saturday 31, examines living things that give off their own glow. The phenomenon—from twinkly airborne fireflies to gleaming dinosaur-looking anglerfish at the bottom of the sea—is “widespread across the tree of life,” says aptly named curator John Sparks. He spoke to us about the city’s shiniest displays north of Times Square.

Fireflies
Lit because: They need girlfriends.
The flashes that come from a firefly’s rear are more than random flickerings; the lights create patterns that are actually mating calls. “It’s a very complex Morse code,” says Sparks. Females look for a specific series of lights in choosing a mate, similar to songbirds responding to a particular tune. At the show, watch for models displaying light emissions, that explain why fireflies twinkle in shades of yellow, orange and green.

Mushrooms
Lit because: It’s a mystery—maybe magic?
If a toadstool is glowing, it means one of two things: Either you’ve consumed too many “magic” mushrooms, or you’ve stumbled on a luminous species. Experts believe certain fungi developed their brilliant qualities, commonly known as fox fire, to either attract spore-spreading insects or to scare off hungry animals. “As far back as Aristotle, people mistook the forest’s so-called fox fire for magic,” says Sparks. Visitors will be able to see the mystical effect themselves in a woodland display.

Dinoflagellates
Lit because: It freaks out predators.
When a bloom of these teeny-tiny single-celled protozoa erupts in the water—say during a red tide—the shoreline resembles a blacklit rave. “There are waves of [dinoflagellates] glowing like mad,” says Sparks. “They can be toxic, but [give off a] brilliant light,” which you’ll be able to see for yourself at a tank filled with the organisms. 

Siphonophores and anglerfish
Lit because: They’re providing their own bait.
Once you get below 1,000 meters underwater, almost every living thing provides its own light. Siphonophores, which are similar to the Portuguese man-of-war but live at greater depths, taunt their tiny seafood prey with one of the rarest bioluminescent colors: red. The museum constructed a model of the species with the help of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Meanwhile, the freaky-looking female anglerfish dangles a lit-up lure filled with shining bacteria in front of its grotesque chompers. (You may recognize these swimmers from a cameo in Finding Nemo.) “There’s a lot of bizarre-looking things down there,” says Sparks.

Glow with it “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence” American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th St (212-769-5100, amnh.org). Daily 10am–5:45pm; $25, seniors and students $19, children 2–12 $14.50, children under 2 free. Sat 31–Jan 6.

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