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A N N O U N C E M E N T S   (Updated:  Nov 11, 2015 )  

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  • E. Newton Harvey, one of the pioneers of bioluminescence research, wrote a book that is now available online, called The History of Luminescence.

  • About that "glowing" sea turtle: This animal is NOT bioluminescent -- it hsa some autofluorescence in its shell. (The use of the terms biofluorescence and glowing makes things confusing.) It is not being excited by UV light but rather by blue light. There is not necessarily any functional significance of this effect. Even your fingernails will fluoresce, because they also contain keratin. The turtle also has some algae glowing on its shell, which is providing the red fluorescence. All chlorophyll fluoresces red, including land plants. So in a way, a monkey holding a leaf could also be said to fluoresce in this way.

  • National Geographic Magazine has a well-written article about bioluminescence by Olivia Judson. They also used our functions diagram as the basis for their (somewhat) animated graphic.

  • A review paper covering recent research on bioluminescence has been published.

  • The web site for the mysterious Bioglyphs art project using bacterial bioluminescence is back online!

  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium also has a Jellyfish Exhibit featuring bioluminescence and fluorescence.

  • An early book by E. Newton Harvey, one of the pioneers of bioluminescence research, is now available for download at Project Gutenberg.

  • Have you spotted a red tide or high levels of bioluminescence? Report it at the jellywatch site.

  • Content of interest:
    • We have added a section describing the many functions that bioluminescence serves in the sea, and updated the tree of life.

    • Our Mail Bag section is currently online. Here we post answers to questions that have been sent to us over the years.

  • Read more about the site and see some of the other pages linking to us at the bottom of the About page.


Bioluminescence is simply light produced by a chemical reaction which originates in an organism.

It can be expected anytime and in any region or depth in the sea. Its most common occurrence to the sailor is in the often brilliantly luminescent bow wave or wake of a surface ship. In these instances the causal organisms are almost always dinoflagellates, single-cell algae, often numbering many hundreds per liter.

Aristostomias pic

They are mechanically excited to produce light by the ship's passage or even by the movement of porpoises and smaller fish.
The deep-sea fish Aristostomias has more than one light organ. Read more about this and other amazing adaptations.   (Illustration © Steven Haddock)

Bioluminescence is a primarily marine phenomenon. It is the predominant source of light in the largest fraction of the habitable volume of the earth, the deep ocean . In contrast, bioluminescence is essentially absent (with a few exceptions) in fresh water, even in Lake Baikal. On land it is most commonly seen as glowing fungus on wood (called foxfire), or in the few families of luminous insects. (For firefly information, try here.)

Bioluminescence has evolved many times in many taxonomically distinct species in the sea as evidenced by the several distinct chemical mechanisms In these organisms in serves many functions, some of which have not yet been explored.

Bioluminescent bacteria occur nearly everywhere, and probably most spectacularly as the rare "milky sea" phenomenon, particularly in the Indian Ocean where mariners report steaming for hours through a sea glowing with a soft white light as far as the eye can see.

Find out more about the basic properties of bioluminescence.


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