Two scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have provided the first details about the mysterious flashes of dazzling bioluminescent light produced by a little-known sea snail.
Dimitri Deheyn and Nerida Wilson of Scripps Oceanography (Wilson is now at the Australian Museum in Sydney) studied a species of "clusterwink snail," a small marine snail typically found in tight clusters or groups at rocky shorelines. These snails were known to produce light, but the researchers discovered that rather than emitting a focused beam of light, the animal uses its shell to scatter and spread bright green bioluminescent light in all directions.
The researchers, who describe their findings in the Dec. 15 online version of Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences), say the luminous displays of Hinea brasiliana could be a deterrent to ward off potential predators by using diffused bioluminescent light to create an illusion of a larger animal.
In experiments conducted inside Scripps' Experimental Aquarium facility, Deheyn documented how H. brasiliana set off its glow, which he likens to a burglar alarm going off, when the snail was confronted by a threatening crab or a nearby swimming shrimp. Nerida Wilson collected the snails used in the study in Australia and collaborated with Deheyn to characterize the bioluminescence.
"It's rare for any bottom-dwelling snails to produce bioluminescence," Wilson said. "So its even more amazing that this snail has a shell that maximizes the signal so efficiently."
Discovering how the snail spreads its light came as a surprise to the researchers since this species of clusterwink features opaque, yellowish shells that would seem to stifle light transmission. But in fact when the snail produces green bioluminescence from its body, the shell acts as a mechanism to specifically disperse only that particular color of light.
Deheyn says such adaptations are of keen interest in optics and bioengineering research and development industries.
"The light diffusion capacity we see with this snail is much greater than comparative reference material," said Deheyn, of Scripps' Marine Biology Research Division. "Our next focus is to understand what makes the shell have this capacity and that could be important for building materials with better optical performance."
The study was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Mark Mitchell Foundation.
About Scripps Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.
About UC San Diego
At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.