The world glows: 10 bioluminescent organisms you should see

The world glows: 10 bioluminescent organisms you should see

On a dark day, remind yourself that the world glows. There’s beauty everywhere, specifically in this case, through bioluminescence: it’s the production and emission of light by a living organism. You can find bioluminescent species all over the world. Here are 10 you can put on your list to research, and maybe find one day. Tip: take a friend.

A male firefly of the species Lampyris Noctiluca. GIF: Pieke Roelofs

A wingless firefly female of the species Lampyris Noctiluca, mating with a male. GIF: Pieke Roelofs

1. Lampyris Noctiluca; the common glowworm of Europe.

I only found out in my twenties, that these glowing creatures live in my area (The Netherlands), when I was walking home at night and saw one by accident in the street. Ever since, I try to see them once a year, during the few weeks when they are visible during their mating season. I’ve been able to capture a couple of videos of this species.

The male fireflies of the species Lampyris Noctiluca are tiny and can fly, while the females cannot: she's a larviforme, much bigger than the male (and easier to capture on camera because she doesn’t move). Lampyridae or lightning bugs get busy around midsummer; they glow to attract a mate. You can spot them most likely between 10 and 12 in the evening.

Noctiluca scintillans, ‘zeevonk’ in Dutch, in Zeebrugge (Belgium). Photo: Wiki, Hans Hillewaert (C BY-SA 4.0)

2. Noctiluca scintillans; also known as ‘sea sparkle’

The Noctiluca scintillans is a dinoflagellate (a classification subgroup of algae) that glows when disturbed. You can find noctiluca scintillans all over the world. I have yet to spot them, but I found out they can be found in the Netherlands too, so this summer I will take a trip to the beach to try and see them. :)

Individual dinoflagellates by itself hardly show a glow, but when they ‘bloom’ in numbers, you won’t miss the spectacular light they produce together.

GIF: Wiki (Public Domain)

Photo: Wiki (Public Domain)

3. Panellus stipticus; the luminescent panellus

Panellus stipticus is a species of fungus, that is a widely distributed. It can be found in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. Bioluminescent fungi are found growing on decaying wood, which is why they are also referred to as “foxfire” or “glow wood”. They glow green in the dark. Tip: Find and identify them during the day, and come back at night!

Deep sea bioluminescent corals . Photo: Youtube, doermarine

4. Deep Sea Hawaiian Bamboo Coral

This one might be hard to find, but be sure to watch the video on the left, because it’s fascinating! In 1979, Dr. Sylvia Earle made a record-setting dive to 1,250 feet off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii. She described the phenomenon of the glowing corals: “When I touched them, rings of light pulsed up and down between base and tip.”

In July 2016, Dr. Earle received a grant from the National Geographic Society to return to the same deepwater coral beds she visited in 1979 for comparative observations of deep water biota, and the bioluminescent corals were captured for the first time in color HD Video.

Pyrosoma. Photo: Youtube, BBC

5. Pyrosoma  

Don’t hide in your basement yet, because it’s not an alien.. It’s a Pyrosoma. A free-floating colonial turnicates, found in temperate waters worldwide.

The name of the species refers to their bright bioluminescence sometimes emitted: pyro means ‘fire’ and soma means ‘body’. Pyrosomes can become up to 30 meters long and be blue, white or pink.

Pyrosomes are planktonic, meaning their movements are largely controlled by the waves of the ocean, current and tides.

English biologist T.H. Huxley saw them at see once:

“I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water” (T.H. Huxley, 1849).

The pyrosome are quite rare to find and often exhibit waves of light passing back and forth through the colony. Each individual zooid detects light and then emits light in response.

Motyxia sequoiae. Photo: Wiki, Eden, Janine and Jim (CC BY 2.0)

6. The millipede Motyxia sequoiae

A glowing millipede! There are multiple Motyxia that are bioluminiscent, but the Motyxia sequoiae is special, because it glows so bright.

Scientists believe the Motyxia sequoiae’s bioluminiscence is a response to heat and also serves as a warning signal; the bioluminescent proteins help neutralise the body's byproducts caused by heat, and the signal is a warning the sequoiae’s body contains poisonous cyanide.

Arachnocampa luminosa; New Zealand’s glowworm .Photo: Youtube, National Geographic

7. Arachnocampa luminosa; New Zealand’s glowworm 

Considered by many glow fanatics as one of the most beautiful trips to make! This glow worm is a species of fungus gnat that lives only in New Zealand. You can find them easily in the Waitoma Caves in the North Island, and the Te Ana-au Caves in the South Island, which have become popular tourist attractions. National Geographic filmed an amazing 360° video where you can explore one of the caves yourself, and look around.

Photo:  Wiki , ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Photo: Wiki, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

8. Mycena chlorophos

Mycena chlorophos is a species of fungus that can be found in subtropical Asia, Sri Lanka, Australia and Brazil. The mushrooms are bioluminescent and glow green in the dark. There are many more fungi that glow, but this is one of my favourites!

Vargula hilgendorfii; also known as ‘sea-firefly’ (海蛍). Photo: Youtube, Piko

9. Vargula hilgendorfii; also known as ‘sea-firefly’

It’s a type of shrimp that you can find around the southern Japanese coast. In the video on the right, you can see people observe the bioluminescent shrimp. Tdub Photo has captured a beautiful photo series of these creatures, including one named ‘The Weeping Stones’, where they scattered the shrimp over rocks.

Photo: Youtube, Great Big Story

10. Watasenia scintillans; the firefly squid

The firefly squid can be found in the Toyama Bay of Japan. While the ending of the video on the right is not vegetarian/vegan- friendly, the beginning shows the beautiful glow of the species, that often flood the beached in Japan with their glow.

In case you’re inspired by bioluminescence, maybe you’ll enjoy this glow experiment concerning UV reactive paints. does not display third party advertisements because we believe information and knowledge that informs or protects the public, should be (clutter)free.

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