Bodies of Light

This post was inspired by my son who’s recently become fascinated with dinoflagellates and said I should write something about them.

No, dinoflagellates are not dinosaurs.

They’re protists, single-celled creatures such as marine plankton.

And though small, they possess the amazing power of bioluminescence — meaning, they can glow. In their case, it is whenever they are disturbed (by predators or currents) that they flare.

When their numbers are high enough, they can make ocean waves come alight.


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The phenomenon of bioluminescence — its chemistry and the many creatures in which it occurs — is endlessly fascinating and its discussion could fill thousands of pages. If you are keen to learn more about it, you can read a great article from National Geographic here. The American Museum of Natural History also features a lot of fun, interactive information here.

But since Wonderchews isn’t so much about describing wonders as contemplating the deeper meaning and connections behind them, I wanted to find something about dinoflagellates that would give pause for further thought and (can’t resist) enlightenment.

After a bit of research I came across a sample of some amazing footage taken by ORCA – The Ocean Research & Conservation Association. It shows a cluster of barnacles feeding on bioluminescent dinoflagellates as they float by. When the barnacles strike their prey, the turbulence they create triggers the dinoflagellates’ bioluminescence. As a result of the effect, the barnacle animals appear to be eating mouthfuls of light!

This struck me as significant.

Because what it made me re-remember is that every living thing — every single organism that consumes food of one kind or another for life — is, in fact, eating mouthfuls of light.

In our case, that light may come in the form of a hamburger or sushi or broccoli — but these items and all others are merely energy transmuted into different substances, all of which share the common ancestry of sunlight. And it is the miraculous and mind-boggling process of photosynthesis, of transforming sunlight into energy on the physical plane, that both initiates the variety of life and underpins it. Every day, the sun’s light travels millions of miles to Earth and is absorbed, say, by photosynthetic algae which in turn are consumed and transformed (by adding water and various elements) into shrimp which are consumed and transformed into fish which are consumed and transformed into human bodies — you can follow this trail of nourishment for any creature — and if you follow the path backward far enough, you will always find yourself steeped in light.

(There is, of course, the recent and fascinating discovery of electron-eating bacteria — but even here the case could be made that the creatures are consuming a shape-shifted version of light.)

So remember — You Are What You Eat.



photo credits: Aqueros and Matthew Holz  and JD Malcolm/Blackpaw Photography

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