While working underwater off the coast of Little Cayman Island, southwest of Cuba, biologist David Gruber accidentally took a photo of an amazing creature. It was a small, snake-like animal, “glowing as bright as the coral,” National Geographic reports—a biofluorescent eel, the first ever photographed in its natural habitat.
That was back in 2011; now, Gruber, an associate professor at the City University of New York, and his collaborators have found the proteins that give these little eels their light, they report in PLOS ONE.
After they “serendipitously imaged” that first eel, as the scientists put it in their paper, they went back and found more. It wasn’t so easy: these eels, a type of “false moray eel,” are shy and they blend in with the biofluorescent corals where they live.
Biofluorescent animals absorb and emit light (as opposed to bioluminescent animals, which make their own with chemical reactions). The scientists don’t know exactly what the green glow of the eels is meant to do; possibly it’s camouflage, possibly it has to do with reproduction. Whatever the reason, it’s both beautiful and eerie to imagine little snakes of light flashing through fields of softly glowing coral.
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