Bioluminescence worldwide – Where nature glows

The world is big and full of wonders. But hardly any phenomenon has such a mystical effect on us as bioluminescence in all its forms. Bioluminescence is the name given to the ability of living beings to produce light through chemical processes. In Germany, we may be familiar with the glowworms that glimmer like fascinating little elves through the undergrowth of the forests in early summer. But they are by no means the only chemists in the animal and plant kingdoms who have mastered glowing.

In the following we would like to introduce you to some bioluminescent creatures and tell you where you have the best chance to observe bioluminescence live worldwide. Come with us on a trip around the world and let yourself be enchanted.

On a pier, the sea glows blue due to the bioluminescence of dinoflagellates
Sea lights can only be photographed well with high ISO and long exposures

Sea lights and luminous lagoons

As a child, I eagerly followed the story of Jim Button and the Wild 13, in which Jim Button had to turn the sea lights back on. Captain Nemo also encountered the phenomenon of mystically glowing water in the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

However, even though it sounds fantastic, the phenomenon of glowing water can certainly be encountered in the real world. Waves run pale blue luminescent on the beach and at every touch the water flashes abruptly bluish. This phenomenon of bioluminescence in the sea is called sea glow, glistening waters or milkey sea in English or blue tears in Asian.

The glow of the water, however, is not caused by a large magnet at the bottom of the sea, but by plankton. The main culprit is algae called dinoflagellates. They react to changes in the current with a flash of light to protect themselves from predators. In the mass, the flashes look like a dull blue glow or sparkle – especially if you run your hand through the water or throw small stones into it.

Where can you see sea lights?

When and where sea lights occur depends mainly on the temperature and weather. Dinoflagellates live mainly in the sea, but some species also live in freshwater, or even in mud. Their distribution ranges from the tropics to the polar regions. Sometimes they are even found in mountain lakes. In principle, the phenomenon of blue glowing water can therefore occur anywhere.

In fact, the phenomenon of the sea glow is also visible in many regions of the world. But the most common observations of sea lights are from the region around Indonesia and the northwestern Indian Ocean, Puerto Rico and the Maldives. However, sea lights can also be seen in Jamaica, the USA, Australia and many other countries if you are lucky. In rare cases, sea lights have also been sighted in the North Sea in summer. There, however, as in many other regions of the world, the organism that produces the phenomenon of luminescent water with its light is also a warning signal for too much nitrate from agriculture in the water. Then the small algae multiply too much and a toxic algal bloom occurs.

Land Ort
Malediven (Juli - Februar) Mudhdoo; Vaadhoo; Rangali
Puerto Rico Puerto Mosquito
Kambodscha Koh Rong
Mexiko (Sommer) Isla Holbox
Vietnam Halong Bucht
Kolumbien Isla Múcura
Cayman Islands Rum Point (Grand Cayman)
Jamaika Glistening Waters (bei Falmouth)
USA (Juni- Oktober) Mission Bay (Kalifornien); Torrey Pines Beach (Kalifornien); Indian River Lagoon (Florida); Mosquito Lagoon (Florida); Cortez (Florida); Merritt Island (Florida); Manasquan Beach (New Jersey)
Indonesien Padang Bai (Bali)
Malaysia Kuala Selangor
Australien Gippsland Lakes; Cairns
Thailand Ton Sai (Krabi)
Belgien Seebrügge (Brügge)
Irland (Juli - August) Lough Hyne
UK (Sommer) Aberavon Beach (Port Talbot); Three Cliffs Bay (Swansea); Norfolk Coast
At a bridge pier, blue sea lights are seen in the current
Sea lights at Falmouth, Jamaica

Luminous sea creatures

But it’s not just plankton that glows in the ocean, and it’s not always algae that are to blame when it glows around the world. In Japan, for example, the luminous squid, which is just a few centimetres small and normally lives in the deep sea, comes to Toyama Bay to mate and lay its eggs. Then the water there sparkles bright blue at night.

A number of other squid species, such as the vampire squid and the magic lamp, are also true illumination artists. However, since most of them live permanently in the deep sea, the likelihood of ever seeing them is rather low.

In addition to luminescent squid, there are also luminescent shrimp, various luminescent corals and luminescent sea snails.

However, luminescent creatures are far from always harmless. Luminescent jellyfish, for example, now count as an invasive species found in warm waters around the globe. They can also make the sea glow and sometimes reach shallow beach waters. You should then avoid the water at all costs, because they do not bear the nickname fire jellyfish for no reason. Their neurotoxin causes severe skin irritations.

Jellyfish glow pink
Luminous jellyfish are beautiful, but often have stinging venom

But the most famous luminescent sea creatures are probably so-called deep-sea frogfishes. These are common in all the world’s oceans, but live at depths of 300-1000 metres. If you are not on a submarine, you will hardly ever see them alive. Incidentally, only the females have the glowing hinges that these fish wave around in front of their heads.

Another bright fish is the lanternfish. This one also lives at depths of over 300 metres, but rises to depths of up to 10 metres at night. With a bit of luck, you can therefore see it on night dives, for example in the Great Barrier Reef.

For those who find this too much of a hassle, some zoos now also offer the chance to see luminescent fish, such as at the Zoo Basel.

But sometimes it is enough to take a look in your own fridge. There, even the local salt herrings like to glow in the dark. However, this is not the fault of the fish themselves, but of a sea bacterium with which they live in symbiosis. The bacteria ensure that the fish are not so easily found by predators in the moonlight. The bioluminescent organisms continue to do their job even when their host is already on ice with you. If you want to try this out for yourself, here’s how for amateur scientists to get your fish to glow optimally. 

Fireflies fly luminously over a forest path
Lightning bugs soar through the forest

Luminous creatures on land

However, the glow is not just reserved for aquatic creatures. Many land creatures around the world are also bioluminescent.

The firefly and its family already mentioned at the beginning are the best example. It is not only buzzing through German forests. There are about 2000 species of fireflies worldwide. Some species even synchronise their glow so that the whole forest seems to be flashing. The best places to observe fireflies are year-round in Donsol in the Philippines, Kuala Selangor in Malaysia and seasonally in early June in the Great Smoky Mountains, near Elkmont Tennessee (USA) and in Congaree National Park in South Carolina (USA)

But it’s not just fireflies that bioluminesce merrily in the woods. Many a fungus also glows merrily in the dark. In German forests, for example, grows the fungus called Honey Yellow Hallimasch, which sometimes shimmers green at night. This unusual property even brought it aboard the first submarines. Its ability to produce light made the instruments there usable before the invention of the light bulb.

But even if you leave the forest, you will find many a bioluminescent contemporary. In the steppe of Emas National Park in Brazil, the termites glow at night, making the termite mounds shine like little skyscrapers.

In the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand, the larvae of the long-horned mosquito hang from the ceiling of some caves. What sounds rather disgusting at first turns out to be a magical glow of stars when it gets dark, under which you can take a boat along an underground river.

Another kind of worm-like animal, but glittering on the ground, are the beach worms in Grouville, Jersey (UK).They make the boundaries between earth and starry skies disappear with their light during a nighttime walk on the beach.

Bioluminescent worms hanging from the ceiling of a cave in New Zealand
Long-horned mosquito larvae hang twinkling from a cave ceiling in New Zealand

Conclusion – seeing bioluminescent animals and plants

If you want to see bioluminescence in animals, plants, fungi and other luminescent creatures, you don’t necessarily have to go far afield. Even in Germany, you already have the opportunity to witness this natural wonder. However, if you are drawn to faraway places, you can discover the most diverse and wondrous forms of bioluminescence on all continents (except Antarctica). Bioluminescence exists in many very different species that seem to have little in common. Each of these little chemists is absolutely unique, but they all work absolute magic with their light in their own way.

You have even more interest in research on the matter of bioluminescence? Then be sure to check out the work of researcher Dr Stefan Schramm from the University of Jena. The chemist’s research investigates what extraordinary processes and compounds bioluminescence produces in animals worldwide.

You know another fantastic example of bioluminescence worldwide or have another tip where you can experience types of bioluminescence live in nature? Then write us a comment and tell us about your (almost) magical find!

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