Bioluminescence vs biofluorescence: how marine animals emit light

Bioluminescence and biofluorescence are naturally occurring phenomena seen within certain animals, and generally involve the production or emission of light. They may seem very similar, but are in fact created differently.

Difference between bioluminescence and biofluorescence: how do they work?

Bioluminescence is where the animal emits light from within its body (or body part/s) due to chemical reactions. A light-emitting compound in the animal called luciferin reacts with oxygen with the help of an enzyme called luciferase, and this reaction causes light to be produced.

Whereas biofluorescence is where the animal absorbs a high-energy light such as violet or blue light, and gives off a lower-energy light such as green or red light due to loss of heat energy. In this case, an external light source is required.


= Animal produces light by itself through chemical reaction


= Animal absorbs and emits light

Who uses bioluminescence or biofluorescence?

Here are some examples:



The purpose of bioluminescence and biofluorescence

Animals display biofluorescent or bioluminescent behaviours for reasons ranging from communication and defense to predation and attracting mates.

For example, the Deep Sea Anglerfish that lives in darkness over one kilometre below the surface of the sea. Females use luminescent lures attached to their foreheads to attract prey. When prey are close enough, they snap them up with their powerful jaws.

Another example are corals, many of which are biofluorescent. These corals generally get their glow from fluorescent pigments that act as sunscreen, protecting the corals’ symbiotic algae from harmful UV rays.

Here’s a Ted-Ed presentation by bioluminescence expert Dr Edith Widder, who is also the co-founder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association.

This next video takes you into the world of biofluorescence in the ocean:

If you wish to learn more about glowing marine animals, join us at Glowing Ocean, happening at the S.E.A. Aquarium from 23 Nov 2018 – 6 Jan 2019.

Find out more about Glowing Ocean

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