Celebrating 'Creatures of Light' that naturally glow in the dark

The American Museum of Natural History, the home of "that giant whale," welcomed a new creature feature into its halls on Saturday. It's called Creatures of Light, and it's all about bioluminescence, a naturally occurring chemical phenomenon that lets a variety of critters light up like LEDs.

If you've sat on a porch somewhere and saw fireflies signal to one another in the dark with pinpricks of pulsing yellow, you've seen bioluminescence in action. Fireflies use the signals to attract prospective mates, but that's not the only way animals employ the ability. The stoplight loosejaw fish is "among the few deep-sea animals that both produce and see red light," according to the exhibit. It's basically got its own built-in night vision that lets it see the shrimp it hunts without its red glow giving it away.

Bioluminescence isn't constrained to flies and fish. As you'll see in the gallery below, there are a lot of different species that use it, and in a lot of different ways. Read on for more on what to expect at Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence.

A World Of Living Light

Walking into Creatures of Light, you're immediately greeted by outsized sights and scenes, such as a towering, glowing mushroom and a massive male firefly with its abdomen flashing. As you go through the exhibit, you'll travel through an impossible, scintillating collection representing organisms from all over the world. The breadth of creatures on display is in large part thanks to the exhibit's curator, Dr. John Sparks, a globe-trotting biologist especially interested in bioluminescent critters.

There's a wealth of information on display, but incorporating some smart technological touches means that you're not just standing there reading plaque after plaque (though there is still plenty of that). For instance, a lot of Creatures' displays use iPads, making it a breeze to access the information that interests you most in any given area. Other parts of the floor are more simple but still effective: a firefly display has you analyzing the patterns of simulated females of the species, and trying to time your flashes just right to attract them enough to respond.

It's an exhibit that not only looks good, but feels interactive in a meaningful way. That point is really hammered home once you get the to part of the exhibit dedicated to the "Bio Bay" in the Caribbean, which tickled our fancy the most.

Our Favorite Bit

Our favorite part of the exhibit is the museum's take on Bioluminescent Bay, a projected bit of tech that mimics the living lights of the Puerto Rican destination, also known as Mosquito Bay.

If you've never been, the incandescent waters of Mosquito Bay are home to a large concentration of dinoflagellates, which glow blue as ocean currents (and swimming humans) give them a nudge. One is not always allowed to swim in the bay — authorities were "cracking down on swimming in the bioluminescent bay" after a shark attack last summer, according to New York Times travel writer Michelle Higgins — but if you did, you'd come out looking radioactive from all the dinoflagellates in the water covering your body. At the museum, the bay is instead a reactive stream of shining microorganisms, that swim around and alongside the feet of visitors.

Of course, visitors aren't really trampling a bunch of poor dinoflagellates. Speaking to Hélène Alonso, AMNH's Director of Exhibit Interactives and Media, we learned that the effect is pulled off by a pair of projectors, a couple of infrared sensors and a computer all talking to one another. IR lets the computer know where museum goers are, and adjust the spritely stream accordingly. While the ebb and flow of dinoflagellates swarm around below, Alonso explains that the reaction is actually a function of mass and not one of avoidance, and that more people on one end of the projected Bio Bay excites a larger group of dinoflagellates than an area where no one is standing. Avoidance isn't in the nature of the microorganisms, just like their brethren at the real Bio Bay: disturbances excite and not repulse the glowing horde.

We asked Alonso about how she and her team approach designing a piece like Bio Bay for an exhibit. Specifically, we wondered if it was an effect that was just for kids. Not so, Alonso tells us: "for ages seven and up." The goal, according to Alonso, is to design something that not only children will dig, but will speak to the young at heart. That approached worked from where we were standing: visitors of all ages would approach the glittering floor, stop, and then walk back and forth as projected dinoflagellates swirled about.

See It All For Yourself

Creatures of Light is open now and runs until Jan. 6, 2013. The American Museum of Natural History is located in New York City, situated along the west border of Central Park in Manhattan. You can learn more about the exhibit and how to see it for yourself here.

Via Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence

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