This was a fun piece of news that caught my eye from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. It seems there is a small sea snail that can produce bioluminesence, strong enough with which it can illuminate the entire shell.
Researchers Dimitri Deheyn and Nerida Wilson have studied a particular species of "clusterwink snail" which has the ability to produce light but uses it in a way that is different from other bioluminescent creatures. Typically, bioluminesence is more focused - a dangling light lure atop a deep sea angler fish, a row of lights along a fish's lateral line, or literally a pair of high beams under the eyes. But with this particular snail, the light is emitted in all directions and the shell adds to the overall effect.
"It's rare for any bottom-dwelling snails to produce bioluminescence," Wilson said. "So its even more amazing that this snail has a shell that maximizes the signal so efficiently."
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences), the researchers theorized that the bioluminesence acted as a kind of "burglar alarm" triggered at the presence of a predator. The diffusion of the light caused by the shell perhaps makes the snail look bigger than it is and therefore a less appealing easy catch for a hungry crab or shrimp. The researchers are interested in the implications of how light can be transmitted through various materials, like the shell. Also curious is one of the study's funders, the U.S. Air Force, who would be interested in how this research could perhaps provide new approaches to better illuminate instruments and aircraft data readouts.
"Our next focus is to understand what makes the shell have this capacity and that could be important for building materials with better optical performance," said Deheyn.
Military applications aside, I find it very fascinating. It reminds me of the various little "glow-in-the-dark" plastic critters I had as a kid that would illuminate my room when the lights went out. But nature's parlor tricks are always way cooler.
Read the Scripps news release on the glowing snail.