The hidden benefits of marine biofluorescence | A moment of science

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A day-edge coral reef with rainbow hues and flashy patterns. Take a nighttime swim in the same reef, however, and all those colors look washed out in the moonlight. The world has turned gray – to your human eyes, at least. But look through the eyes of a moray, and suddenly the reef lights up.

When blue light enters ocean waters, it reflects off surfaces such as coral or the body of a fish. Humans cannot see this reflected light, but many marine organisms, such as certain species of eels, turtles, fish and sharks can, thanks to a special device in their eyes. What do these devices allow them to notice? Like revelers at a blacklight rave, they see the darkness lit up by the neon glow of the other animals present.

This glow under blue light is called biofluorescence, and it turns out that many sea creatures have it. Intricate patterns of brilliant green, red or orange adorn the body of everything from small reef fish to large sharks. And many animals, such as the hawksbill turtle or the pygmy seahorse, sport these colors in vivid combinations. With such husky and vibrant colorations, biofluorescence transforms a dull reef into a permanent party.

Of course, the fluorescence ability and the ability to see biofluorescence are useful for more than just partying. Biologists believe that biofluorescence can attract prey, attract mates, warn predators, or provide camouflage. It can even allow creatures of the same species to recognize each other. A new field of study, biofluorescence could offer benefits for everything from marine conservation to biomedical research.

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