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Why do animals have “bioflourescent” or “bioluminescent” abilities?

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In late September, marine biologist David Gruber revealed the world’s first recording of a reptile displaying bioflourescent behavior. The hawksbill sea turtle that Gruber observed in the waters around the Solomon Islands (off the coast of Australia) displayed green and red colors.

Red-eye wrasse. Credit: Nico Michiels, University of Tübingen
Red-eye wrasse. Credit: Nico Michiels, University of Tübingen

Many animals in both the water (corals, jellyfish, sharks to name a few) and out of it (butterflies, parrots) have been known to possess bioflourescence, but this is the first time that any reptile has displayed the ability even though some experts have studied the hawksbill sea turtle for years.

The reasons any animal will possess either bioflourescent or bioluminescent abilities vary from communication, predatory deception and defense. Some animals possess both abilities and use them for a variety of reasons. The red-eye wrasse uses bioflourescence to communicate with other fish and to defend their territory.

Pacific Viperfish. Credit: NOAA.
Pacific Viperfish. Credit: NOAA.

The infamous viperfish (Chauliodus sloani) lives deep in the ocean with no visibility and is able to produce light without absorbing any light. The viperfish lights up a bobbing lure that extends from its body in front of its gaping, tooth-filled maw. In the darkness of the oceanic depths, the glowing bioluminescent lure beckons hungry fish who, if they swim too closely to the light, become the viperfish’s next meal.

Bright and/or glowing light in the animal kingdom usually is a defensive mechanism, a visible signal that is intended to say to potential predators: WARNING you do NOT want to eat me! Brightly-colored poison dart frogs are a perfect example.

Swell shark swelling and looking inside its mouth. Credit: KenJonesFishing.com.
Swell shark swelling and looking inside its mouth. Credit: KenJonesFishing.com.

So, too, is the bioflourescent swell shark (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum) that glows green to scare off predators and to attract mates. The swell shark earned its name from its defensive tendency to swim into tight nooks and crevices in rocks or reefs and gulp water, inflating so large that predators cannot easily eat them and will move on to feed on other prey. By swimming into a tight space and bending its body into a U shape, biting onto its tail before gulping water and swelling, the swell shark can double its body size.

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