The Brightest Bioluminescent Bay In The World Gets Its Glow Back

Mosquito Bay. Credit: BMC Ecology

Natural disasters are a detriment to human lives as they cause an immense destruction of lives and properties. The forest fires in California has ravaged the land and homes of many individuals and caused them to become displaced. High drops in temperatures due to cold snaps in winter can become lethal to those who are homeless. The disaster we hear about frequently are hurricanes.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, it left many dead and many more displaced. It was thrown into darkness and many celebrated the holidays without electricity. Alongside the human impact, the hurricane caused numerous damage to the environment. One of those affected was Mosquito Bay.

Mosquito Bay is regarded by some as the “brightest bioluminescent bay” in the world by some because of its natural glow as a result of organisms in the water. This all changed when Hurricane Maria hit because it resulted in the bay being also thrown into darkness. The bioluminescent glow was gone.

The disruptive wind and introduction of freshwater into this salt water system caused major chemical changes to the water that destroyed the organic life that was thriving in the bay. The bioluminescence was from dinoflagellates.

The hurricane also caused major damages to the surrounding mangroves. Edith Widder, a bioluminescence specialist, said that this greatly affected the dinoflagellates because the mangroves provide essential nutrients to the dinoflagellates.

Fortunately, the dinoflagellates and their glow seem to be returning to the bay as the damages heal and chemistry of the bay is restored. This is excellent news for the bay and the people because this is an important tourist destination that helps to feed the local economy, which is especially needed now after the hurricane.

The return of the bioluminescence showcases the ability of the dinoflagellates to recover and survive extreme disasters.

Dinoflagellates

Dinoflagellates are a group of eukaryotes that are marine plankton, though they are also found in freshwater. the many different species are spread across the different bodies of water, from brackish to cold. It is thought that there are over 2,000 different species of dinoflagellates, which includes the parasitic and nonparasitic species.

They are unicellular organisms that are capable of different diets depending on the species. Some species are phototrophs that use light to generate energy and food. Some are mixotrophs that are capable of either using light energy or ingesting organic foods. There are also those that are heterotrophs that feed on organic materials for food, like the parasitic ones.

The species of dinoflagellates that live in Mosquito Bay is Pyrodinium bahamensealso known as “the whirling fire of Bahamas”. They are found in the Atlantic Ocean and prefer a relatively strict environment, which makes them difficult to culture in a lab. They require relatively high amounts of nitrogen, which researchers speculate is the result of needing it for toxin production.

Pyrodinium bahamense as seen under an electron microscope. Credit: CSIRO

P. bahamense, which was previously thought to be non-toxic. We now know that they are responsible for toxicity throughout places like Southeast Asia. They are also responsible for toxicity seen across different coasts along Central America.

When agitated or under threat, P. bahamense display their blue-green bioluminescence. This defense mechanism is used to surprise the thing that is agitating the plankton. It is also used to alert surrounding predators that something is nearby so that these two predators can fight each other.

Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that occurs to produce the lights that we see in the Mosquito Bay and other places with concentrations of bioluminescent organisms. This reaction is not restricted to just planktons and is found across different organisms like fungi, bacteria, or even animals. This ability is thought to be very old and successful because it can be found as far back as 66 million years ago. It has also been found to be independently evolved in different species.

The general chemical reaction used by most species is the activation of some type of light emitting molecule by an enzyme. The enzymes are generally referred to as luciferase and the molecules are luciferin. There are many different reasons why organisms might use this reaction to create light. We have seen how organisms use it for defense.

Some organisms, such as certain species of squid, use bioluminescence for counter-illumination. This is a form of camouflage that allows an organism to produce light that matches their background so that they can blend in and seem invisible to everything else.

The principal of counter-illumination in firefly squid. The illumination allows it to blend into the sea background. Credit: Chiswick Chap

Some species use them for attraction purposes. This can be to either attract a prey or a mate. Fireflies use bioluminescence to draw in potential mates. The lights are used as a signal to potential mates and include information about the health and viability of a mate.

Just as plants or frogs use color to indicate that they may be toxic or unpalatable, some organisms use bioluminescence to warn potential predators that they are not a good meal.

Other uses include communication, mimicry, and general illumination.

Whatever the use of bioluminescence, they are also a good tool for observing and understanding the health of an environment. Hurricane Maria showcased the effect of natural disasters on sensitive lifeforms as it disrupted their ecosystem. This also gave researchers an opportunity to track the progress and changes that occurred from the moment of disruption to when the bay started to heal.

Mark Martin-Bras, the director of research for the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, had captured this opportunity as he and his team took continuous samples from the bay to monitor its progress. They have seen the bay slowly recover and believe that it will take a considerable amount of time to truly recover.

With the different bodies of water facing threats from pollution and climate change, taking the opportunity to observe and understand them would allow us to protect them and help them heal from the tribulations that they will inevitably face.

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