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Southern Lights: The Unique Bioluminescent Chemistry of New Zealand’s Glowworms

Credit: David Merritt

A glowworm in the Waitomo Caves hangs sticky threads to catch insect prey. Credit: David Merritt

By Nigel Perry, Oliver Watkins, Miriam Sharpe & Kurt Krause

Researchers have extracted the molecules that power the majestic glowworm displays in New Zealand’s Waitomo Caves.

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The creatures that produce the beautiful light shows at Waitomo are actually glowing maggots: the larvae of a type of fly called a fungus gnat. Always found close to water – they are called titiwai by Māori, a name that refers to lights reflecting in water – glowworms use their blue-green light to attract prey: tiny flying insects that become entangled in sticky threads that the larvae hang beneath them. There is only one species of glowworm found throughout New Zealand, Arachnocampa luminosa, but their cousins can also be found in Australia; eight different Arachnocampa species have been found across the east coast and in Tasmania.

Many different organisms produce their own light, a phenomenon called bioluminescence. Perhaps the best-known are the glowing fireflies of the northern hemisphere and the jellyfish and dinoflagellates (plankton) in the sea. There are also glowing millipedes, bacteria, squid, fish, fungi and others.

Bioluminescence is always the result of a...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.