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Bioluminescent waves burst with light-producing plankton

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This is not a special effect. These are bioluminescent waves, a natural phenomenon that occurs when light-producing dinoflagellates, a type of plant plankton or algae, are disturbed. This Monterey Bay Aquarium footage captures this glowing summer show in California’s Monterey Bay.

Bioluminescence has many purposes: Anglerfish use it to attract food in their lure, strawberry squid use it to disguise themselves—and many organisms, from worms and shrimp to jellies and dinoflagellates, use it as a defense mechanism!

When a dinoflagellate is shaken up, a light-emitting chemical reaction inside the plankter produces a blue flash that startles a would-be predator, limiting their effectiveness—imagine a strobe light going off with every bite of a sandwich!

On their own, each dinoflagellate is just one sparkle in the night. But when there is a big bloom of them—sometimes called “red tides”, though they’re not always red and have little to do with the tides—their collective trillions agitated in the waves produce the aquatic fireworks we’ve been experiencing recently.

bioluminescent waves
bioluminescent waves

When they’re this abundant, the dinoflagellates are able to create somewhat of a burglar alarm with their individual defensive spark. Animals swimming through the soup leave a trail of light breadcrumbs for larger predators to track through living night-vision seas.

Digital download: Get this bioluminescent waves wallpaper from Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Related reading from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI): New study shows that three quarters of deep-sea animals make their own light.

Next: Dolphins swim through bioluminescent algae. Plus, watch more videos about bioluminescence.

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