Take a trip from your own back yard, around the world and to the bottom of the ocean in “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” now open at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. In this new exhibit, get an up-close look at some of nature’s most unusual life forms: those that glow in the dark.
“Bioluminescence is the ability to generate light through a chemical reaction,” says Colleen Walker, chief executive officer for the museum. “It is one of nature’s most beautiful, brilliant and confounding mysteries in the natural world.”
The exhibit is divided into six sections that demonstrate how this unique, natural ability can happen in any type of environment. Each section includes accurate, larger-than-life-sized models, detailed panels of facts, and interactive tablet touch screens that provide videos and additional content.
Ethereal music and dim lighting set the mood for a dark and exotic adventure. (Parents worried about children being afraid or getting lost, note that museum staff members are stationed throughout the exhibit.) Here’s a closer look.
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A Summer’s Night
The exhibit starts in the United States with bioluminescent mushrooms that grow on decaying wood in the eastern forests. The model of the appropriately-named jack-o-lantern mushroom, with its orange and green glow, is 40 times the fungus’s actual size. Beyond that, an enormous firefly hangs from the ceiling.
At the “Talking to Fireflies” station, use blinking lights to send signals and communicate with a simulated firefly partner. See how fireflies in a simulated forest twinkle in the night sky.
A Mysterious Cave
In New Zealand’s Waitomo Cave, glowworms hang from the ceiling. The worms, which are actually fly larvae, secrete a sticky substance that dangles from the cave ceiling and glows when they are hungry, attracting their insect prey.
Duck inside a simulated cave tunnel for a view of what magnified models of these creatures look like in their habitat. Panels show how a glowing millipede and click beetle use similar methods to ward off predators.
A Sparkling Sea
Mosquito Bay, a Caribbean lagoon on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, is home to a colony of microscopic dinoflagellates. These creatures swim in the shallow water and when something touches them, they produce a burst of light.
Here in the exhibit, a simulated river runs through the walkway and as passers-by step on it, the creatures follow and sparkle. An enlarged dinoflagellate model shows how these tiny creatures look under a microscope.
Bioluminescence is similar to another natural phenomenon, fluorescence. In the Cayman Islands, creatures glow by absorbing light, rather than creating it. Use the interactive replica of Bloody Bay Wall and touch screens to move through the display and explore how light rays change the color of glowing coral.
Models of jellyfish demonstrate how some animals can utilize both types of light. A display explains how fluorescent light is used in modern everyday objects and toys.
The deeper the ocean water, the stronger the need for bioluminescence. In this darkest section of the exhibit, learn how two different fish have an essential symbiotic relationship with bioluminescent bacteria.
A model of an Indonesian ponyfish demonstrates how this animal collects bacteria in a pouch and uses it to attract mates. An aquarium houses live flashlight fish. Although the fish measures approximately 3-5 inches long, only a small streak beneath its eyes is visible in the dark.
The Deep Ocean
The darkest area of the ocean is home to some of the most unusual bioluminescent creatures. Where the depths reach 23,000 feet, up to 90 percent of sea creatures are bioluminescent.
The model of an angler fish brings to life a creature that seems almost unreal. Learn how males of the species attach themselves to the female and are absorbed to become part of her body. Only females have the iconic dangling lure, which attracts prey.
The vampire squid is named for its red eyes, spines on its tentacles, and a black cloak of skin in which it can wrap itself to hide. Other models show how fish can disguise themselves and catch prey.
As much as scientists know about the deep-ocean creatures, there is still much more that is a mystery. At the end of the exhibit, a small display includes a probe used by the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) to shoot images and collect samples from the ocean floor.
Museum educator Jessica Crowley credits ORCA founder and bioluminescence specialist Edith Widder for much of the exhibit’s information. Most of the real images in the exhibit were taken using a probe and lures to attract the fish, she says.
Bioluminescent creatures are amazing to see, but their ability also serves a valuable purpose. It helps them fight for survival, attract mates, and hunt for food in some of the world’s darkest ecosystems.
Crowley, who has been nicknamed the “Mother of Fishes,” is responsible for caring for the museum’s aquatic guests. The flashlight fish cannot be exposed to light and are also stressed by loud noises.
She uses a low red light to feed the fish three times each day and monitor the saltwater, which is prepared in-house. The museum does not typically have live exhibits, so the fish are a special treat, though they require a lot of attention.
The Perot has a knack for making the gross look glamorous and the everyday become extraordinary. Chasing fireflies after dark is a classic childhood experience, but most people might not know what makes these insects glow. This exhibit teaches children — and the curious kid in every adult — how this can be and why it is essential.
Walker emphasizes that while the Perot may encourage scientific curiosity in school-age kids, each exhibition is just as much for adults, too.
“Never lose that essence of being a kid and getting to be delighted and mesmerized and filled with wonder and that curiosity where you think ‘How does that even happen?’” she says. “When we have that mindset and viewpoint, we can really enjoy life.”
Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence
- Through Feb. 21
- Perot Museum of Nature and Science
- 2201 N. Field St., Dallas
- 214-428-5555, perotmuseum.org
- 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday (see website for holiday closures)
- General admission plus exhibit surcharge, $18-$26 (members $4-$5)
Dec. 12: “Discovery Days: Darkness,” 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Guests learn about nocturnal animals and deep-sea creatures, create a sea creature, study gems under a microscope and enjoy a planetarium show. (Included in general admission.)
Jan. 9: “Discovery Days: Light,” 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Guests learn about the solar system, plants and animals, and electricity. Build a circuit, learn how to grow a plant, and enjoy a planetarium show. (Included in general admission.)
Jan. 22: “Social Science: Glow.” 7-11 p.m. Guests age 21 and older enjoy cocktails, live entertainment, discussions and experiments. Learn about bioluminescent plants and animals, wearable LEDs and current research. ($20, members $15)