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Go with the Glow
How to Go: Vieques

Go with the Glow
Shedding light on one of nature’s strangest and most beautiful phenomena.
By Kim Connors

Smithsonian National Zoological Park

Bioluminescence—the ability of living organisms to produce light through chemical reactions—is among nature’s most fascinating displays. All sorts of creatures, from fish and microorganisms to insects and plants, glow in the dark, in a wide range of shapes and patterns. Although the colors are usually limited to shades of green and blue, reds also occur in rare cases, most notably in a family of bioluminescent fish known as the loosejaws.

Perhaps the most familiar example of bioluminescence is the common firefly, or lightning bug, which flashes a yellow light from the end of its abdomen to attract potential mates in summer. Other organisms also rely on this phenomenon to boost their numbers. Foxfire fungi, for example, found on rotting wood in forests in North America, Europe, and as far away as Asia, produce an eerie green glow likely to attract animals that disperse their spores through the forest.

It is the earth’s vast oceans, however, that house the widest variety and instances of bioluminescence. Ocean organisms have had many millions of years to evolve and adapt to their dark surroundings.

Scientists are still making discoveries about the many ways in which this phenomenon occurs in nature, but studies indicate marine animals use bioluminescence to both attract and deter attention. The predatory female anglerfish, for example, uses a glowing worm-shaped lure to draw shrimp and smaller fish toward her gaping mouth. Recent findings show that this same lure will also attract potential mates, like a bright beacon in the murky depths. Some species of squid squirt fluid to shield their escape from predators. Tiny crustaceans called krill, “the popcorn of bioluminescent the sea,” swirl en masse to confuse predators with millions of startling lights. Another effective bioluminescent defense often used by schools of smaller sea creatures such as mid-water shrimp is called countershading. These crustaceans light up the undersides of their bodies, mimicking the light patterns from above—virtually disappearing from a predator’s view.

While the highest concentrations of bioluminescent creatures tend to be found in remote places like the island of Vieques, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, smaller collections are fairly common throughout North America, from Baja California to Maine’s Acadia National Park to Titusville, Florida. They are even found in some surprising places, including New York City’s Harlem River. There, during late-summer high tides, comb jellies wash in from the Atlantic Ocean to lurk in this very urban body of water, producing, when disturbed, alienlike rows of rainbow-colored lights along the city shores.

No matter where you live, there’s likely to be some form of natural light show nearby. So do some research and head outside for some natural enlightenment.

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How to Go: Vieques

Numerous airlines, including American and JetBlue, offer nonstop flights from the U.S. mainland to San Juan, Puerto Rico. There is scheduled air service from San Juan to Vieques with several carriers, including Vieques Air Link (888-901-9247). Vieques is also connected by several daily ferries from Fajardo and by high-speed catamaran from San Juan. The island has a number of boutique hotels and guest houses in a variety of price ranges. At the top end are Hix Island House (787-741-2302), an environmentally sensitive collection of villas in central El Pilon, and Inn on the Blue Horizon (787-741-3318), commanding a dramatic Caribbean bluff. A funkier, more family-friendly option is La Finca Caribe (787-741-0495), an El Pilon country house with open-air showers, a communal kitchen, and flowers and fruiting trees that attract a parade of songbirds and hummingbirds. Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (787-741-2138) is open year-round, from sunrise to sundown. The Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust (787-741-8850) has historical exhibits and several small aquariums and touch pools. The trust also lends binoculars for birding and stocks a local bird checklist. More tourism information is available at, and—Christopher R. Cox

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Feature story link to "Beauty & the Bomb."

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