Bioluminescence in New England

December 19 2014
land
sea
backyard
Our goal for this expedition is to hunt down six creatures in New England that exhibit bioluminosity and one psuedo-luminious plant. Though we will start with the familiar firefly, our journey will take us from the sea to the dark swamps and forests. Using our OpenROV and being patient explorers, we hope to capture photos and images of these amazing organisms in their natural habitats.

December 19 2014

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Preparation Stage

Mushroom Hunting Foundation


To prepare for the coming mushroom season, I thought it was best to consult someone experienced with locating mushrooms in New England. This past weekend I contacted Ryan Bouchard. Ryan Bouchard and Emily Schmid are the creators of the Mushroom Hunting Foundation, a Rhode Island based nonprofit organization. Ryan and Emily educate people about safely hunting for wild mushrooms in New England. They hope that through programs they offer, people will walk away with a better understanding of mushroom hunting. They also would like to see their work help to make mushroom hunting a popular activity in today's culture.

I spoke with Ryan at an event for his book/calendar titled Gourmet Mushrooms of the Northeast. We briefly discussed the bioluminescent mushrooms in New England. He was familiar with the three bioluminescent mushrooms that are on my list and had seen the Bitter Oysters mushroom (Panellus stipticus) glow. He explained that finding the mushrooms at the right point in their life cycle would be important, or they might be only glowing faintly, or not at all.

Ryan said he was confident he could find Bitter Oysters. As for the other two mushrooms, Honey Mushroom (Armillaria) and Jack o’ Lantern Mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), he felt they might be difficult to locate.

We asked Ryan if he could help with our expedition and he said he would be happy to. We will be scheduling a meeting with Ryan where can learn more about mushrooms in the northeast, and discuss our goals.

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Nice! Enlisting the experts in the search.

Thanks! I'll also be reaching out to Woods Hole and URI Oceanography Inner Space center for a little help with the bioluminescent life in the shores and bays in New England.

The Eriee Glow of Bioluminescence.


Shortly into this expedition we unexpectedly were pulled into another project that consumed much of our time and energy. After three years we can finally turn our attention back to the bioluminescent creatures hidden in New England. When we last left off we were attempting to grow Panellus stipticus in the Dirt Lab. Panellus stipticus, commonly known as the bitter oyster, is a fungus in New England known for its bioluminescence. We hoped to not only be able to closely examine the fungus, but also use it to learn how to best photograph its luminescence. Our first attempt was met with failure, but we were not deterred. Our second attempt was successful enough to do some test images. Impressed by the results, we planned on doing a 3D model of the glowing fungus once the fruit grew larger. Soon after we found our fungus was overtaken by bacteria that contaminated our fruiting chamber. Our third attempt was much like our second one. So far we’ve learned that growing fungus is not our forte, but sometime failure is the tuition you pay to become a master.

This month we will once again try to grow Panellus stipticus. Before we get started though we will consult someone experienced with growing this fungus, and adjust our approach. Hopefully this time we’ll finally be successful and be able to do do our series of photos, and 3D model.

Over the spring and summer we’ll be back on the trail of the bioluminescent fungus and creatures hidden in the wilds of New England.

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Interesting! What’s the full list of bioluminescent creatures in your area? Do you already have the checklist?

Yes, I have a check list. So far I have found six different sources of bioluminescence in New England; Honey Mushroom, Bitter Oyster Mushroom, Jack o’ Lantern Mushroom, Comb Jellies, Dinoflagellates, and the well known Fireflies.


We also have a luminous moss in New England that is worth mentioning. Locally it is know as Goblins Gold. Though it is not bioluminescent, it has an interesting property that makes it appear to have a very bright golden green glow.

I forgot to mention copepods, a very small crustacean that uses a flash of bioluminescence to scare off an impending predator.

We have one more to add to the list. Vibrio fischeri, a bioluminescent marine bacteria.

We’ve been reaching out to local authorities on dinoflagellates, jellyfish, fungi, and insects and have gotten a very positive response. All seem very interested in the project and are happy to be able to participate.
 
We were especially pleased by the recent response from the Boston Mycological Club and Cape Cod Mushroom Club. We felt that hunting down the luminescent fungi would be the most difficult task on our list. The location in which these fungi are found is variable. Often, they only glow for a few days after rain, so they can be very difficult to catch. Fortunately the local fungi experts are not only familiar with our quarry, they have also crossed paths with them many times before. They have given us details on the best times of year to find them and which are their favorite trees on which to feed. Still though, it will require many failed attempts of sitting out in some of the darkest parts of the forests in the northeast before we catch them glowing. When we do we have to act fast. What might be a hotspot one day can often be completely dark the next. With the assistance of the local clubs, I’m confident we’ll be able to capture them in action.
 
In preparation for photographing the fungi and dinoflagellates, we will attempt to grow some at the Dirt Lab. We've already created the special terrarium in which to grow the fungus. This will give us a chance to become familiar with how to best capture them in action. Also, we’ll have a chance to get them under the microscope for much closer examination.

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Expedition Background

Before the mid-1800s, most people dwelled in places where the night often brought complete blackness. If a person ventured outside at night, there would be times when they stumbled on a world of luminous organisms living in our forests and bays. Some of these instances could be frightening and have been the origin of local lore.

We now live in an age of illumination and have lost touch with the strange world of bioluminescence. The dark conditions needed are now eliminated by the light pollution around us. Because of this, most people are only aware of one of the six members of this microcosm, the firefly.

In 2015 we plan to hunt down all of New England creatures that exhibit bioluminosity. Though we will start with the familiar firefly, our journey will take us from the sea to the dark swamps and forests. Using our OpenROV and being patient explorers, we hope to capture photos and images of these amazing organisms in their natural habitats.

We’ll share the data, science and the lore we gather along the way. We hope to enable others with the where, when and how they can also see these creatures in their own part of the New England. Something unique for all to enjoy.

We’re already aware of where and when we can find several of these luminous creatures, but there are still some that will take a while to find. Another hurdle we have to jump is how to capture the low light of creatures’ glow on video. We already have plans in the works on how to prepare for what is to come. Stay tuned!

~Michael

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Hi there!
You project sounds great and very original scientifically speaking! I look forward seeing pictures and images of these amazing organisms in their natural habitats!
All the best and only the best for 2015, the new year sounds very promising then ;)

Dorian, bioluminescents has many current and future application that are being explored. Its an exciting science that has been getting very little coverage. I'm surprised, because who doesn't love stuff that glows in the dark! :)

I love that this is going to cover the sky, the earth, and the ocean. I think "vertical transects" are some of the most fascinating ways to describe our planet from the benthos to the stratosphere, anything that connects all three domains in one expedition is rad in my book. Have you heard of David Gruber? He's a genuinely nice guy and studies the language of bio luminescence. He takes wonderful photos.

The diversity of bioluminescent life in New England is fascinating. Its history and lore is equally compelling. This is a project thats been on our to-do list for a long while.

I've read many papers on the subject, but I haven't heard of David Gruber. Davids photo are fantastic, and his work on biofluorescent organisms is also very interesting. Thanks for the tip! I'll add him to my reading list.

Hello Michael,
We also have some of these bioluminescent creatures here in Florida and also in the Caribbean. I will follow your project with great interest!

I'm very excited to watch this project unfold! I was able to experience bioluminescent plankton in the San Juan Islands a couple years ago, and have been fascinated by the phenomenon ever since. It will be amazing to learn more about it in a research capacity.

HI Margaret, I first experienced it in an inner cove in Maine 10 years ago. Since then I've been wanting to better understand local bioluminescence. This is a project has been a long time in the making.

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