Biofluorescent Fish Appear In Large Numbers, Just Not To The Human Eye

By Ajit Jha on January 11, 2014 12:23 PM EST

biofluorescent fish
Scientists exploring various parts of the ocean have found a world of biofluorescent fish much larger than previously expected. Their biofluorescence went largely undetected because they often use it as camouflage. (Photo: PlOS One)

A recent study by the American Museum of Natural History has found that there are over 180 species of fish with biofluorescence. The light emitted by them is not visible to humans but absorbing of light and transforming it into a wide range of colors is common to many species. This is how they communicate and attract a mate.  

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The scientists were actually exploring a fluorescent coral reef off Little Cayman Island, in the Bahamas, to gather photos for an exhibition. While reviewing images, they stumbled upon a glowing green eel. After exploring four other parts of the world, they came up with the startling discovery that biofluorescence is more widespread than ever known before. There is now clear evidence of biofluorescence in at least 180 species spread across 16 orders.  

The researchers caught a glimpse of the hidden biofluorescent universe by designing special lighting to mimic the ocean's light and cameras to capture the animals' fluorescence, said co-author of the study David Gruber, of the American Museum of Natural History and the City University of New York. "Many shallow reef inhabitants and fish have the capabilities to detect fluorescent light and may be using biofluorescence in similar fashions to how animals use bioluminescence, such as to find mates and to camouflage," he said, according to CNN.

There is a difference in the way bioluminescent and biofluorescent organisms emit light. Fish and fireflies are bioluminescent as they produce their own light. However, bioluminescent species, such as some fish and coral, absorb relatively high-energy blue light, and transform it into lower energy red, green, and orange light. Some organisms are both bioluminescent and biofluorescent.

Most of the fish species that the researchers identified in the current study use biofluorescence for camouflage, or to find each other - only they can see each other - and mate, according to the researchers. The human divers were able to see them with only some degree of clarity when they exposed the organisms to an intense blue light, which activated the fluorescence.

The findings, published in the journal PLoS One, will be valuable for evolutionary and behavioral studies of these fish, the researchers said. Additionally, the findings could be highly useful in biomedical research where there might be a need for biofluorescent proteins. The researchers can use these proteins to light up different biological processes in humans. In 2008, a group of scientists discovered Green Fluorescent Protein in jellyfish - they later won a Nobel Prize for the discovery. "The discovery of green fluorescent protein in a hydrozoan jellyfish in the 1960s has provided a revolutionary tool for modern biologists," Gruber said, according to The Daily Mail, "transforming our study of everything from the AIDS virus to the workings of the brain."

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