Phenomena

Bioluminescent Plankton

The blue-outlined dolphins you see above get their glow from microorganisms called dinoflagellates. They are a type of bioluminescent plankton, shown in the lower image, that can be found in oceans around the world. Their glow comes from combining two chemicals: luciferase and luciferin. The dinoflagellates suspended in the ocean do this when they are disturbed–specifically, when the water around them transmits a shear stress above a certain threshold. Typically, this is caused by something larger–a potential predator–moving past, although it can also be stimulated by breaking waves. The higher the shear stress, the more intense the glow, but the dinoflagellates only use their bioluminescence sparingly. If you apply shear stress and keep applying it, their glow fades away without reactivating. After all, they can only produce so much chemical fuel. (Image credit: BBC from Attenborough’s Life That Glows; h/t to Gizmodo; research credit: E. Maldonado and M. Latz)

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