Marine bioluminescence has fascinated researchers since Pliny used jellyfish slime on his walking stick as a make-shift torch two-thousand years ago. Minute sparks and brief glints of light, like those seen seasonally around Long Island Sound last only 100 milliseconds each. The displays caused missionaries to suggest that the sun “impregnated and filled the sea during the day with an infinity of fiery and luminous spirits.” But it was Benjamin Franklin who in 1753 correctly concluded that “it is indeed very possible, that an extremely small animalcule, too small to be visible even by the best glasses, may yet give a visible light.” We now know that most of the local light-loaded, luminescence is about defense or sex. Solving the problem of finding a mate in the vast expanse of the oceans is a daunting task for sea life; especially for the smallest. Animals can go to awe-inspiring lengths to attract the opposite sex. Some produce alluring sounds, intoxicating scents, or display brilliant colors. Successful solicitations are more likely to produce offspring that inherit their parents’ alluring ways. But dancing like no one is watching doesn’t work for marine in vertebrates, which must also solve the problem of timing. On the Great Barrier Reef corals coordinate reproduction with dozens of different species spawning in unison. In the Bermuda fireworm these strategies combine in what Siddall declares to be “by far the most beautiful biological display I have ever witnessed”. First documented in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and his crew just in advance of their historic landfall in the Americas, a new study Siddall looks at the genes that are be behind this incredible marine bioluminescent display made by reproductive swarms of Bermuda fireworms and the tight timing of their ritual twenty-two minutes after sunset beginning on the third night after the summer and autumnal full moons. Self-styled “Curator of Wormy-slimy Stuff” at the American Museum of Natural History, Mark Siddall’s research has focused on the diversity and evolutionary biology of a wide range charismatic microfauna from microbes to leeches. Mark has led expeditions throughout the world, most recently including South Sudan, Cambodia and the Lower Amazon of Brazil. His work in the Sackler Institute of Comparative genomics varies from sequencing the first whole genome of bed bugs to leveraging iDNA as a measure of endangered animal diversity in protected tropical forests.
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