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“Creatures of Light” at the Field Museum | Preview
Meet fascinating bioluminescent beings at the Field Museum exhibit.
By Web Behrens
Published: March 7, 2013
For protection. For hunting. For mating. Certain life forms emit their own light for a variety of reasons. And maybe (just maybe) one of them is to fascinate us humans? That’s likely to be the result of “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” a new exhibit cocreated by the Field Museum, where it opens Thursday 7, and New York’s American Museum of Natural History (where it premiered last year to rave reviews). We visited Leo Smith, Ph.D., assistant curator of fishes, at the Field to get some extra insight on the glowing creatures.
Pinecone fish 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, “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.”
Anglerfish 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.
Scorpions 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.
Photo: J. Sparks/AMNH419.wk.at.op.creaturesoflight.bitteroystermushroom.jpg161065715
Dinoflagellates 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.