In Creatures of Light, you will move through a series of luminous environments, from familiar grassy meadows to the deepest parts of the ocean. Earth is home to a diverse collection of organisms that glow, and this exhibition explores how and why they do. You will discover the ways light is used to attract a mate, lure unsuspecting prey, and defend against predators. Throughout the gallery, you will deepen your experience with videos, animations, photographs, and iPads with additional in-depth content.
A Summer’s Night
Step into a nighttime meadow in eastern North America, where fireflies use unique patterns of flashing light to communicate with each other. Larger-than-life firefly models show you the “lantern” that emits the light, a tiny organ in the abdomen. Fireflies use their flashes to attract mates, prey on other firefly species, and even ward off predators by signaling they will taste bad. You will also try your hand at re-creating their dazzling mating signals in a mimic activity.
Light on Land
Peer into a dark cave in New Zealand, where the ceiling is speckled with blue-green lights. These glowworms are actually the larvae of small flies secreting threads studded with sticky droplets reflecting light from their bioluminescent tails. Flying insects are entangled in these lures and reeled in for food. One glowworm can produce more than 40 lures! Nearby, a woodland environment shows bioluminescent mushrooms covering the floor of the forest. You will marvel at a gigantic model of a jack-o’-lantern mushroom, 40 times its actual size. These mushroom species are distinctive since relatively few land organisms glow.
A Sparkling Sea
Stroll across an interactive Puerto Rican lagoon as you light up a trail of flashes from tiny “pyrotechnic” plankton. The sheltered, shallow bay is full of these organisms, called dinoflagellates, that flash when something bumps into them, triggering a chemical reaction with a burst of light. Scientists are not sure why dinoflagellates light up on contact, but many believe the chemical reaction may act as an antioxidant or be used to startle or expose predators.
Why Does It Glow?
See live creatures, such as a scorpion, fungi, and dinoflagellates, get their glow on, and play a game to match creatures with the hypothesized function of their glow.
Some animals don’t have their own light-making chemicals, so they form a partnership with bioluminescent bacteria. In return for providing a glow for the host animal, the bacteria receive food and shelter. Ponyfish have had this kind of glowing bacteria in their bodies for millions of years. They use their glow to attract mates. See live bioluminescent bacteria and a large-scale model of a male golden ponyfish.
Some creatures glow by absorbing and re-emitting light from an external source, a phenomena called biofluorescence. Explore an interactive coral reef wall to see how shining blue light onto corals can make them glow neon shades of pink, orange, and green. Put minerals, scorpions, and everyday objects to the test in the activity “Does It Glow?” See large-scale models of the crystal jellyfish, which are both biofluorescent and bioluminescent, and peer into a tank of live GloFish and discover how fluorescence helps detect pollution and contributes to medical research.
The Deep Ocean
In the dark deep ocean, the only light comes from bioluminescent creatures. Large-scale models of an anglerfish, vampire squid, and hatchetfish show an array of deep-sea creatures that use their specializations to travel, hunt, and mate. In the Deep Sea Theater, you will be introduced to a variety of animals, including a jellyfish that lights up like a flashing pinwheel when threatened and a viperfish whose fangs are so long they don’t fit inside its head.
Explore the many ways bioluminescence and chemoluminescence have inspired scientific research and everyday objects.