Frigid and Flourishing: Freeze-Proof

This post series opened with Part 1, an exploration of some snow-dwelling lifeforms.

The sun sets on the Yukon Territory’s Porcupine River, slowly melting into a far-off, lazy oxbow, pouring its tangerine light one last time over the endless, icy stillness. It’s just before four in the afternoon, the New Year is soon approaching, and it is cold. Very, very cold. As the blue above dims, and the blinding mango creamsicle spectacle comes to a rapid close in the west, you can almost hear the river ice creak and wince in anticipation for what’s coming. It only got up to 20 below today. The nights have grown large this time of year, and cruel. First light won’t come for what seems like eternity, and by then, the air will be a devastating -60 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold enough to kill exposed human skin in a handful of minutes. Cold enough to turn even antifreeze-laden gasoline into flammable slush. Cold enough for breath to stiffen in an instant, collecting as a growing layer of biting rime on every hair on one’s own face; eyelashes, eyebrows, the whole bit. In the growing dark, nothing moves. Chickadees settle into tree cavities, and rapidly begin burning through the fat reserves they gained during the day’s feeding, all just to keep warm. Caribou huddle and lay low. Ptarmigan wriggle into the snow (surprisingly, for insulation), stoking their metabolic fires with a crop pouch full of food. To survive the night, Life winds down everywhere, becoming motionless and dipping unnervingly near death in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

Well, everywhere except within the cramped, moist layers of bark of the naked balsam poplars lining the riverbank, stony and brittle with the cold. In there, somehow, life stirs, pushing and wriggling its way through its frozen, wooden den. It’s a tiny beetle grub, a larva of the northern red flat bark beetle (Cucujus clavipes puniceus), no longer than the graphite tip of a well-sharpened pencil. It has no blanket of thick fur or fluffy feathers, no fat-powered metabolic oven to keep it warm. It is a bare-assed worm, twenty feet up in a barren, ligneous spire, sandwiched between the unrelenting sadism of the Arctic atmosphere and a block of nearly lifeless wood….possibly the worst possible location for cold exposure. And yet, it is comfortable, its teeny body barely noticing the silent, breath-stealing chill invading from outside the bark.

Why? Because when the frosty grip of boreal death extends its hand, the larval red flat bark beetle tells it to fuck off.


Not bad for something that looks like a condom filled with urine-flavored Jello.

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Frigid and Flourishing: Life in the Snowscape

Ice_Caitlyn_Wynne

It’s now January, which means that up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is, generally speaking, the coldest time of year. The days are still short, barely rounding the bend from their shortest point on the solstice, and the sun cuts a tentative, shallow angle across bleak, sleepy skies, darting back under the horizon almost as soon as it emerged, as if it was trying to escape the nippy atmosphere and curl up under the warm cover of night.

The arrival into this annual temperature trough is sitting prominently in my mind these days for a variety of reasons:

  1. My beloved Seattle Seahawks, just this weekend, made a miraculous win in Minnesota, despite enduring the full, sub-zero fury of the Gopher State, with windchill reaching a lung-punching 20-below, making it the third coldest NFL game ever.
  2. The armed, self-described “militia” yokels currently more than a week and a half into squatting in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in my homeland of Oregon do so in a region of the state that suffers the most harrowing winter temperatures. A week ago, nighttime lows plummeted to 18-below (cold enough to turn the occupiers into Skoal-and-jerky flavored popsicles), and it hasn’t risen much since then, and won’t until March. There’s been some talk of cutting the power to the headquarters building, and simply waiting for the unyielding, unmitigated harshness of a high-desert January to bludgeon the everloving shit out of their seditionist tantrum.
  3. I recently returned from a trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to visit family for the holidays, during one of the most anomalously snowy and cold weeks of the year, with the snowline slumping down nearly to sea level, invading rainforest river valleys that are almost guaranteed snow-free throughout the winter. My soft, Hawaii-resident body whined in the face of 25 degree temperatures, atypical for a comparatively mild area of coastal Washington.


Behold, nearby Mt. Baker, one of the snowiest places on planet Earth. If winter itself had its own mountain, this would be it.

Photo: Jake Buehler

Even back in my normally balmy Hawaiian Islands, it’s now cold. And by “cold” I mean that I occasionally get the shivers waking up early in the morning with the windows open, and I don’t become a sweat-slicked heap of misery and heat exhaustion when just sitting in my home office. Basically, “cold” in Honolulu is when daytime highs top out short of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tend to think these cold conditions, whether they are just a seasonal inconvenience, or a year-round way of life (like up near the poles), as being particularly insufferable for life. When the landscape is buried under five feet of Winnipeg white, the ecosystem functions very differently. Vegetation isn’t accessible to many herbivores. Predators have a minuscule pool of animals to hunt. The temperatures are too low for “cold-blooded” animals like amphibians and reptiles to stay active. Plant growth grinds to a crawl. Everything trying to scrape by in the frozen stillness seems to either be on the verge of starving or freezing to death.

The truth is, however, that while many organisms make a great effort to put up with or evade (ala songbirds flying towards the equator for winter, or mammals that hibernate) freezing temperatures…there are a minority that have embraced these glacial surroundings. Organisms that have evolved extreme levels of cold-tolerance sit at the lower boundary of what is possible for life to persist. Because of them, the coldest parts of our planet actually teem with life, even if it doesn’t appear that way during on initial impressions.

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Venomous and Underrated: Hymenopteran Horrors

I have a penchant for particularly noxious lifeforms, the ones that have evolved nasty chemical tools for either fending off bigger, badder, and hungrier things, or bringing down breakfast. Anyone who has read the breadth of this blog should now be aware of my adoration of the biology of such fundamentally antagonistic critters, the mark of which has been left behind in the number of entries devoted to the lesser-appreciated toxic flora and fauna of the world. Deadly, toxic mushrooms. Boxfish, with their poisonous mucus. The terrifying, seafood-driven, hallucinatory rollercoaster ride of ichthyoalleinotoxism. Pungent vinegaroons and acrid harvestmen. Venomous caterpillars that make you bruise like a peach….to death. Birds that silently embed concentrated toxins in their fucking feathers.The “Do Not Touch” exhibit in the Museum of Life has made a strong showing within the overall theme of Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology. I mean, Christ, my very first post on here was about an insatiable aphid-slaughtering deathdozer that bleeds poison foam.

Most of the unsavory representatives above are of a particular variety of being, well, molecularly disagreeable. Up until now, I’ve chiefly yammered on about “poisonous” and “toxic” organisms (with the exception of that intimidatingly venomous caterpillar), things that secrete or store harmful compounds in or on their bodies, such that the aggressor the poisons are intended for must passively absorb the toxins through digestion, or through the skin and mucus membranes (considering my research on boxfish, this bias towards this type of defensive strategy shouldn’t be all that surprising). Nature also hosts plenty of “venomous” organisms, which entails a much more direct, Type A approach to chemical warfare, wherein the poison punch is forcefully injected via a (generally quite pokey) delivery system that has evolved specifically to fuck up your day.

There are plenty of well-known venomous superstars, and it is especially the venomous snakes and spiders that garner the lion’s share of the limelight. A fair number of people are familiar with the superlatively deadly representatives of these groups, from sea snakes, cobras, and taipans, to Brazilian wandering spiders and Sydney funnel-webs, which regularly make appearances on just about every heavy-handed, suspense-saturated, kitschy “TOP TEN DEADLIEST” daytime special to run on Discovery, Animal Planet, or Nat Geo for the last decade or so.

But the brush painted by the evolutionary strategy of venom is broad, and the technique has cropped up in a surprising number of very distantly related lineages. This two-part series of posts will be devoted to the unsung venomous animals, which neither slither through the grass or canopy (nor thwart the professional efforts of John Goodman), and within their ranks, not even necessarily the most dramatically dangerous or traditionally telegenic and charismatic representatives. These other animals, however, have evolved injectable weaponry that is truly remarkable on its own merits, by a diversity of metrics, despite not achieving comparably towering levels of renown. Much attention has been bestowed upon the black mambas and black widows, the Clooneys and Jolies of venom notoriety. It’s appropriate to give the Goldblums and Leguizamos their day in the sun for once.

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High Tide: Hallucinogenic Fish

I love to eat fish.

Fish is by-and-large my favorite dietary source of protein, and living in Hawai`i means that I get to indulge in this adoration for finned flesh perhaps more often than I should. In the islands, there are plentiful, fresh fish of a staggering diversity sold and consumed everywhere you turn; firm and buttery a`u (Pacific blue marlin, Makaira nigricans), rich opah (Lampris regius), ubiquitous mahimahi (Coryphaena hippurus) and `ahi (Thunnus), lean and flaky ono (Acanthocybium solandri), and delicate `opakapaka (Pristipomoides filamentosus) are just a few. There’s also uhu, ulua, aku, uku, mamo, manini, akule, palani, awa, ama`ama, u`u, opelu, nenue, kamanu, omaka, hapu`u, `ula`ula koa`e, moi, ukikiki, kahala, kala, umaumalei, wahanui, and moano too. Introduced species? Hawai`i has roi, ta`ape, and to`au. Great, glistening troughs of poke line the deli section of just about every grocery outlet on my island (Safeway, local chains….liquor stores), and upon seeing them, I inevitably have to command my legs to carry me away from a fate involving a plastic container of heaven, chopsticks, and a wallet seven dollars lighter.

There are a number of reasons why avoiding the reduced price special on the limu `ahi at the Liliha Foodland may be a wise decision for just about anyone (temporarily salvaged funds unconsidered). As with any food, there are inherent risks, and fish have a unique repertoire of ways they can make a regretful meal. Perhaps the most readily publicized is the health risk posed by the bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the tissues of a number of fish species typically taken as food by humans. One bite of a particularly metal-saturated swordfish steak isn’t going to promptly send you to tea with Alice and a rabbit, and the accumulation of the poison in humans takes time (and LOTS of contaminated fish consumption). But, there are more acute ways a fish filet can bite back. For one, the fish may be highly endogenously toxic, meaning that the fish embeds poisonous compounds into its own essence, it’s own bodily tissues. Pufferfish are well-known for this approach, and many species have organs loaded with tetrodotoxin (TTX), a naturally-occurring, chemical Angel of Death so potent that it makes cyanide look like fucking ibuprofen. Preparing pufferfish for the passage between human lips takes all the insane, brow-beading, calculated finesse of disarming a bomb, but despite the supreme level of care of highly-trained culinary experts, every so often, people drop dead after ingesting the fish. Really damn dead. There are also the ever-present risks of conventional, bacterial food poisoning and infection with parasites like tapeworms and roundworms, both of which are more likely to occur in the less-than-cooked form of fish (my personal favorite state of fish).

Yes, you potentially need to watch what you eat when it comes to fish, whether you risk the slow march of mercury toxicity or a weekend hovering over the world’s unhappiest toilet. These risks are generally understood and expected.

What isn’t expected from your seafood? That you might get high off of it.

The phenomenon is called “ichthyoallyeinotoxism” or “hallucinogenic fish inebriation”; both are just jargony ways of saying that, somehow, the catch of the day has you hearing colors. Occurrences are uncommon, but there are plenty of baffling records, ancient and modern, of humans coming away from their sea-borne suppers with more to worry about than a bit of lemon wedge-fueled acid reflux. Like how to convince the grumpy, five-headed emu in the corner of the room that you don’t have any millipedes hiding under your fingernails.


“Alright, everybody, time to get weird!”

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Arachnids: Solifugids

This post is the fifth in an ongoing series on arachnids. Previously, this series addressed whipspiders, hooded tickspiderspseudoscorpions, and harvestmen. Additional posts on other weird, often overlooked or neglected groups of these creepy crawlies to follow. For a related chelicerate, but as far as science can tell, not an arachnid, see the post on sea spiders.

The solifugid.

This group of fleet-footed arachnids is known by many names across the globe. Wind scorpion. Camel spider. Sun spider. Sun scorpion. Unintelligible screaming and cursing. All of these refer to members of an enigmatic order of arachnids; Solifugae. The name of this order, derived from Latin, means “those that flee from the sun”, an acknowledgement of their habit of chasing shadows in an attempt to stay cool in their predominantly hot, sunny, and arid native habitats. Despite their frequently used common names which identify them as some sort of breed of spider or scorpion, solifugids (a more accurate identifier of the arachnids within the Order Solifugae) are most certainly a distinct, separate animal from either group. They may have the long, athletic legs and noticeable jaws of spiders (Order Araneae), and the elongated body, coloration, and desert aesthetic of the scorpions (Order Scorpiones), but the 1,000 species or so of solifugid occupy their own lonesome twig on the arthropod family tree. It is generally thought that Solifugae is a part of a larger subdivision of arachnids, called Dromopoda, which also includes scorpions, pseudoscorpions, and harvestmen (daddy longlegs); specifically, combined analyses of the genetic relatedness and shared morphological features of these critters have also linked scorpions, pseudoscorpions, and solifugids together in a grouping dubbed “Novogenuata.” Although, comparative studies on the male genital system have also suggested that solifugids might have a more complex evolutionary history, showing more similarities with mites and ticks in some ways than with their supposed close relatives, the pseudoscorpions. This confusion of what makes a solifugid a solifugid, and its relationship with the rest of the arachnids, would be greatly assisted by fossil evidence, but the fossil record for the Solifugae is pitifully scant, with a few dubious, incomplete, vaguely solifugid-like specimens dating back to about 330 million years ago…and only a few instances of unambiguous solifugids showing up about 300, 115, and 50 million years ago. Most importantly, the earliest stages of this group’s evolution are currently lost to us.

Whatever they are in the grand architecture of the arachnid clan, they are widespread, gravitating towards hot and dry regions of the subtropics and tropics the world over, omitting their presence from only the continents of Antartica and, surprisingly, considering they would fit right the fuck in there…Australia. And wherever they make their residence, they have a very powerful effect on the humans that encounter them, and they have for an incredibly long time. Solifugids, to put it lightly, have an “imposing” appearance and demeanor, with their huge, sharp, pinching jaws, sizable mass, and ungodly overland speed. Consistent first impressions full of everything ranging from a bad case of the all-overs to panicked, wild boot-stomping has undoubtedly earned them immediate recognition as a being assuredly, terrifyingly divergent from other many-legged beasties since antiquity, with the Greeks dubbing the monstrous arachnid “phalangion”, decidedly separate from “arachne”, the spider. More recently, there are accounts of soldiers stationed in North Africa during both World Wars who would pass the time by pitting captive solifugids against each other, or against a scorpion (because why not, I guess), in a fight to the death in possibly the smallest, ugliest, and leggiest gladiatorial showdown of all time.


I’m thinking a 6-inch tall Joaquin Phoenix will give the scorpion a thumbs down.

These brutal spectacles involving dueling “jerrymanders”, another name for the solifugids, were enthusiastically gambled upon, because of course they were. Also, in regards to the aforementioned moniker, if there’s any animal that I could envision being spiritually associated with the deceiptful, ethically impoverished, slimy act of manipulating voting districts, it’s the solifugid…an animal that looks like it would skitter up your leg and chew and burrow its way into your taint if you so much as looked at it sideways.

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Macabre Moths: The Infernal Nocturnals

My girlfriend is terrified of moths.

She hates them; purely, unabashedly, and completely. She despises their habit of gracelessly barreling out of the dark, smashing into anything and everything (including human faces) in a flurry of fluttering wings. She hates the way they persistently ram themselves into outdoor lights,  which oh-so conveniently tend to be right above her head just outside of the front door, cutting her off from the frustratingly close safety of her house. She loathes the angry drumming sound they make when they clumsily bat their wings against whatever wall or window they are crawling across. She shivers at the mention of their wings, which she describes as “dusty” (the powdery coating is actually made up of very tiny scales that cover the wing; butterflies have these as well). I’ve watched her spot a particularly massive, beastly, mothy bastard spread out sinisterly underneath a neighbor’s outside window sill, and immediately swing her path past it into a wide berth, eyes cautiously locked on the insect threat. She does not like them here or there. She does not like them anywhere. My girlfriend does not like the moth. She does not like them, David Lee Roth.

Because of her undeniably real, demonstrably intense dislike of moths, she was not exactly appreciative of the fact that the last week of July (July 19th through July 27th) was National Moth Week (or of the fact that I’m writing this blog post at all, frankly). For those of you that are unfamiliar, National Moth Week, started in 2011, is a global citizen science effort wherein groups of those inclined (called “moth-ers”, but I like to call them “moth-heads”) set out into the night equipped with lights, a white sheet, a bait mixture made of something like rotten fruit, molasses, or beer (preferably not the good shit; stick to domestic swill like Bud or Coors), and perhaps a camera for recording purposes…all of this to observe and categorize whatever moths they find attracted to their lights or bait, and to potentially contribute their findings to a multitude of databases. In this bit of crowdsourcing of data collection, we are able to know a bit more about the distribution of moth species (and for many species, where they turn up in the world is not well-known), and their general abundance over time, which is important to keep track of, considering that moths are good early indicators of decline in an ecosystem’s ecological health. Another major focus of National Moth Week is to bring awareness to moths, which are oftentimes regarded as boring, drab nuisances instead of the diverse, often colorful, interesting animals that they are. NMW also provides an opportunity to get groups of school age children together to not just learn about moths and the natural world that surrounds where they live, but to take part in a globally held citizen science project, hopefully inspiring some of them to take interest in the biological sciences in a more permanent sense.

Truthfully, moths are far more interesting than we give them credit for. They are diverse in form, size, coloration, and behavior. They are unfortunately pegged as dull creatures, which, at their best, are annoying, and at their worst, a pest that destroys clothes and crops. There’s a single thread runs through their popular characterization; one that paints moths as fundamentally benign, like a house fly, or a slug…something to put up with, and nothing to get too excited about; the “white bread” of the insect world. But, while it’s important to remember that moths are interesting by being incredibly important members of their ecological communities, as insatiable, leaf-obliterating larvae, as pollinators of flowering plants, or as nutrition for everything from birds to bats…there are a number of species that solidly destroy the notion that moths are innocuous at the acutely individual level. Some species are downright threatening, blatantly ignoring the memo about how moths are “supposed” to be the awkward, dirty, night shift butterflies of the world and nothing more disconcerting. These species, twisted, creepy, grotesque, and malicious even by arthropod standards, make it difficult for me or anyone else to dismiss my girlfriend’s mottephobia (the fear of moths) as being unfounded.

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Boxfish: Little Fish, Big Toxins

The boxfish.

Most of the time, I use this blog to blather on and on ceaselessly about all the things about life on this planet I find inescapably fascinating. While all of my exposition on killer fungi, badass birds, weird plants, or whatever obscure, bizarre, horrific, extinct monstrosity wandered into my search history that week is charming (obviously) and fun and all, I don’t often indulge in not only talking about the things that I think need to be shared, but things that are also very directly related to my scientific, academic interests. But, today I shall pander to myself and the relatively narrow realm that constitutes my research interests in the hope that you, dear reader, can push through the voluminous, insatiable outwards expansion of my own ego and acknowledge that my currently proposed study organism for my PhD research, the proud, doughty boxfish…is pretty goshdarned fucking cool.

While I plan on investigating certain nuances about the genetics and evolution of this special group of fishes, the topic of this post isn’t on the subtleties of things like gene flow between populations and speciation, but instead on an incredible, noxious, chemical adaptation that is unique to the boxfish.

But first…what exactly is a boxfish? Boxfish are small fish (between about 5 and 18 inches long, but most are at the low end of that range) that frequent the shallow areas of the warmer parts of the world’s oceans, like coral reefs and seagrass beds. They spend their lives passively pruning algae and small invertebrates like crustaceans, worms, and sponges off rocks and coral with their tiny, delicate mouths. They, as a group, are united in having a body made conspicuously rigid with hexagonal, bony plates fused together to form a hard, yet light-weight shell that encircles their interior, “real” skeletal framework. This shell (which has recently been used as bionic inspiration for automobile design) often has modestly rounded corners, and makes the animal distinctly rectangular in overall shape…hence the “boxfish” name (many species are also referred to as “trunkfish,” and there a some species with preposterously unintimidating horns called “cowfish“). This is an animal that is too hip not to be square.

So, this full-body shell results in the boxfish having a skeleton that essentially looks like a decapitated skull. Similarly to a skull, there are precious few holes in the cage of bone, and the formidable armor only opens up for the eyes, puckered mouth, fins, and tail to peek out into the water. When desiccated corpses of boxfish wash up on beaches, their remains resemble the forgotten, bleached craniums of ill-fated livestock out of a stereotypical, “harsh” cartoon desert.

Photo taken shortly before a tumbleweed rolled into the frame.

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Electric fishes

Electricity.

It’s hard to imagine modern life without the stuff. It heats, cools, and lights up our homes and businesses, reduces the chaos of transportation, and because it powers technologies that allow for communication across vast geographic areas, it is the lifeblood of the Information Age. Over time, we’ve discovered that the utility of electricity is ludicrously diverse; from keeping food cold enough to prolong preservation, to saving lives through defibrillation of the heart, to being a dick to your friends. The fact that I am currently writing this on a laptop computer, and then disseminating the information in it over the medium of the Internet, is an undeniable consequence of humankind’s harnessing of electrical energy.

If you are inclined to think of the control and use of electrical energy as a human “invention”, then prepare to set your anthropocentrism…and perhaps yarns telling of curious, bespectacled statesmen armed with kites and keys…aside. Humans are far behind the curve, by many millions of years, on this front once the rest of the animal kingdom is considered, because just like with light (which I’ve talked about before), many animals can produce their own electricity.The overwhelming majority of these animals are at least partially aquatic, since water is a far better conductor of electricity than air. Of these gifted organisms, the bulk of them are vertebrates, and in particular, among our finned and gilled friends, the fishes. There are some mammalian exceptions, including monotremes (the platypus and echidna) and perhaps a species of dolphin or two, but by and large, it’s fish that have locked down this electricity thing. Volta, Tesla, and Edison were great and all, but the reality is that animals not too distantly related to the flaky goodness in your Gorton’s fishsticks had them solidly beat by eons, evolving a commanding grasp of the power of electricity right into their bodies.

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Dragons

Dragons.

We’ve known them as ancient, mythical, winged, pyromaniacal reptilian beasts with a flair for the dramatic and destructive. They have been a fixture in our lore, in some form or another, the world over. While most of these tales of dragons are fictional, or at least highly embellished, there is still a very strong chord of truth in them. The blaze-setting, screeching hell-drakes so common in storybooks have not existed for a very long time, and it is unlikely that Medieval humans actually had contact with them (this stands in contrast with unicorns, which went extinct in 1982 when the last specimen escaped from her enclosure and ingested some antifreeze). However, dragons have had a rich and colorful evolutionary history that dates back 225 million years, and their unique biology and rise and fall in biodiversity is worth discussing.

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Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence.

One of the more intriguing (at least to me), and beautiful quirks about the evolution of life on this planet is the repeated development of bioluminescence across many different lineages. Bioluminescence is simply the ability of a living organism to produce light. If it’s alive and luminescing, boom, you’ve got an example of a complex chemical cascade that allows sacks of meat not so different from ourselves to light up like a goddamned Christmas tree. Essentially, what is happening with bioluminescence is a highly controlled chemical reaction that releases energy in the form of light emission. This can be done by the beastie itself, or by a symbiotic microorganism that has been acquired by a larger creature. It occurs in multiple kingdoms of life, in terrestrial and marine environments. If I so desired, I could ruminate tearfully on how all of Earth’s life is chemically derived from components forged in a star in a Saganesque exposition of cosmic perspective…and how in some small way, bioluminescence is the means by which stardust can light the darkness of the universe once again. But, heavy-hearted sighs and poetic attribution of consciousness to a mechanically elegant and indifferent universe are for another day, and if done in all seriousness, for another person.

The thing about bioluminescence is that often our understanding of it is limited to a few well-known examples, and without any sort of context, biological or otherwise, other than ‘that is pretty; I like it.’ And while yes, indeed, fireflies and deep-sea fish do have a magical and/or alien quality to them, there is a whole world of bioluminescing organisms that go unloved and underappreciated and denied all the badass reasons for and applications of their abilities. Bioluminescence has evolved many times, and therefore, each example tends to have its own unique story.

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