A New Study Examines The Science Behind The Dazzling Bermuda Fireworms That Christopher Columbus Documented

In 1492, the intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus commented on the mysterious dazzling glow of the Bermuda fireworms that he encountered before reaching the shores of America, describing their unique light as being close to that of “the flame of a small candle alternately raised and lowered.”

Up until the 1930s, scientists still did not understand how these fireworms managed to achieve their glow, but it was finally determined that the light of these fireworms was all part of a complex mating ritual, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

According to a new study, this mating ritual of Bermuda fireworms is one that is intricately timed and takes place both in Summer and Fall. However, the timing doesn’t stop there. These fireworms wait patiently until the third night of a full moon and then exactly 55 minutes after the sun has gone down the females leave the seafloor and use their luminescent sea green light to attract male fireworms who happen to be passing by.

As lead author Mercer R. Brugler noted, “It’s like they have pocket watches.” Co-author Mark Siddall explained that when the male fireworms spot the females, they too exude a deep luminescence.

“The female worms come up from the bottom and swim quickly in tight little circles as they glow, which looks like a field of little cerulean stars across the surface of jet black water. Then the males, homing in on the light of the females, come streaking up from the bottom like comets—they luminesce, too. There’s a little explosion of light as both dump their gametes in the water. It is by far the most beautiful biological display I have ever witnessed.”

Scientists in the past have come up with a number of different theories about how these Bermuda fireworms achieve their glow. One theory was that the glow was caused by photoproteins, while another was that an enzyme known as luciferase may be causing the blue-green light. And while luciferase does indeed help to create this glow, Bermuda fireworms have a very specific type of luciferase which cannot be found in any other fireworms.

However, luciferase is just one part of the mating ritual. New research has now determined that the eyes on these fireworms are able to become even larger than they normally are thanks to some very special enzymes. These enzymes make it so that the glow of other fireworms is much more readily apparent, which ensures a successful mating ritual.

The Natural History Museum’s Michael Tessler has released a statement explaining that the discovery of a new kind of luciferase could be very useful in the future when it comes to biomedical research, as Smithsonian Magazine reports.

“It’s particularly exciting to find a new luciferase, because if you can get things to light up under particular circumstances, that can be really useful for tagging molecules for biomedical research.”

The new study on the science behind the glow of Bermuda fireworms has been published in PLOS One.