TIME TO SHINE
BBC Focus - Science & Technology|May 2021
A FEW YEARS AGO, SCIENTISTS BELIEVED ONLY A TINY BAND OF CREATURES COULD EMIT LIGHT. BUT A STRING OF NEW DISCOVERIES HAS ILLUMINATED A WIDER WORLD OF GLOW-IN-THE-DARK LIFE FORMS
JULES HOWARD

DEVIL MAKES LIGHT WORK

“It was pretty shocking when we saw it,” Jacob Schoen, a technician at an Ohio zoo told local reporters in December 2020, just before the global media circus descended. The source of this storm? This image, clearly showing that the Tasmanian devils housed in their enclosure were fluorescing after-hours – parts of their faces were, quite literally, glowing in the dark. Certain Australian mammals, including Tasmanian devils, are thought to manage this via arrangements of special proteins in the skin and fur that absorb energy from sunlight during the day. At dusk, they re-emit this energy in a different wavelength – one invisible to humans without the use of blacklights or ultraviolet (UV) torches, which translate these hidden wavelengths into colours our eyes can process. The big question zoologists are now asking is: why? What role does fluorescence play in animal communication? Week-by-week, month-by-month, other animal discoveries are lighting a path towards answers.

STRIKE ME PINK

In February this year, an African rodent called the springhare became one of the first non-Australian mammals known to fluoresce. A secret patchwork of luminous markings was discovered upon its flanks, each made up of organic compounds called porphyrins found in the fur. Each individual (male or female) appeared to have its own unique patterns. This differs from marsupials such as echidnas, where fluorescence tends to occur in distinct regions of the body, such as the eyes, ears or nose. Quite what purpose these blobs serve has become a hot topic among scientists. Some argue it may be a meaningless side effect as porphyrins break down at different speeds across the fur. Others argue that the patterns may help individual springhares recognise one another, or that the phenomenon is some form of cryptic camouflage – visual ‘noise’ to deter predators.

LUMINARY LIFELINES

This lizardfish, previously unremarkable, lights up like a toothy space dragon when illuminated with a special torch. It is one of thousands of so-called ‘cryptic’ fish – species that are so hard to spot that few scientists encounter or know much about them.

The lizardfish’s photographer Dr Maarten de Brauwer wants to change that. With a powerful blue torch in one hand and a diving mask fitted with a yellow filter, de Brauwer is trialling new ways to make easy-to-overlook fish like these light up like fireworks, in order to help conservation scientists seeking threatened species.

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