Researchers diving late at night in the Solomon Islands discovered a sea turtle like no other - one that glowed in the dark. Check out a video of the turtle here.
Scientists exploring the reefs near the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean at night have made a shocking discovery. According to a report from National Geographic, researchers have photographed the first-ever biofluorescent reptile.
The turtle showed a dazzling array of neon green and red strips running down the back of its shell. The endangered hawksbill sea turtle revealed a bizarre secret; it was the first biofluorescent sea turtle ever observed, reflecting blue light on an organic surface as a different color. The turtles typically glow with beautiful patterns of green, orange, and red.
It is important to note that the turtle was not the same as a bioluminescent creature, one that can produce its own light through bacteria or internal chemical reactions. Other animals like coral exhibit biofluorescence, in addition to various species of fish, sharks, rays, mantis shrimp, and a group of tiny crustaceans called copepods.
The team that captured the video of the bizarre turtle was filming corals at the time. Corals in the reefs of the Solomon Islands were the only animals around that glowed with two distinct colors – green and red. The biologists filmed footage of various species of gobies, a tiny reef fish that glowed with a dark red hue at night, as well as long eels that glowed green. The hawksbill turtle filmed by the researchers was the first animal other than the stationary corals that showed both red and green. While biofluorescence is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, scientists never suspected they would observe it in a reptile; never mind a sea turtle.
Alexander Gaos, the director of the Eastern pacific Hawksbill Initiative was absolutely shocked by the discovery. Even after studying sea turtles for years, he has never seen anything like the discovery.
David Gruber, a marine biologist from the City University of New York was filming footage of biofluorescence in tiny sharks and the reefs off of the Solomon Islands late this July. As his team kept watch for sea crocodiles that patrol the area where they were filming, they were stunned when the fluorescent hawksbill turtle appeared from the dark.
Gruber likened the appearance to a visit from a UFO, a silent and alien craft effortlessly gliding past with foreign patterns blinking in the night sea. He was able to capture a shot of the sea turtle’s shell retreating back into the depths thanks to his underwater camera’s lighting fixture. It emitted blue light, which just happened to match the light of the surrounding ocean. He shot using a yellow filter, which allowed the fluorescence to show up on the camera.
He followed the turtle as it swam over the reef system, but let the creature be after he got his footage, not wanting to harass it. The turtle turned for the depths and dove into the darkness below.
Gruber was only able to see the glowing turtle once, but his curiosity was far from satisfied. He spoke with a nearby local community that had several juvenile hawksbill turtles in captivity. He visited at night and sure enough, they displayed biofluorescence as well. But this time, they glowed with a deep red hue.
Biologists believe they will need to conduct a large collection of research before they can say what makes the sea turtles glow for sure. They have no idea if the ability is unique to hawksbill turtles in the Solomon Islands, or sea turtles across the globe have this ability.
According to Gaos, animals usually use biofluorescence to attract prey, ward off predators, or communicate with other individuals of the same species. In this case, he suspects that the glowing patterns on the sea turtle’s shells acted as a camouflage. During the day, their rugged shells blend in with the jagged reef surfaces as they graze on sea grasses. They have proven difficult for Gaos to capture for research on multiple occasions.
Similarly, the turtles may use their glowing shells to blend in with corals on the reef that put on a colorful display during the night. Gruber suspects that the red color on the turtle’s shell was likely the result of algae on the shell that was fluorescing itself, but the green was glowing directly off of the turtle’s shell.
The discovery poses far more questions than it answers about the nature of these curious turtles. Possible routes of study include determining whether or not the sea turtles can perceive other individual’s biofluorescence, and if it serves as a form of communication over territories or alerting others of danger. Researchers could also examine how the turtles produce the glowing effect in the first place. They may absorb certain biofluorescent compounds from the food they consume, or they could generate it all by themselves. One of the largest questions posed by the discovery is how to determine what other turtle species, or other reptile species for that matter, also possess the ability to glow in the dark.
One of the biggest challenges to studying the turtles further is the fact that they are endangered. There are very few individuals roaming in the wild, and the ones scientists are able to find are extremely protected by international conservation laws. According to Gruber, their population has declined by almost 90 percent over the past few decades.
If Gruber is able to confirm that other species of sea turtles exhibit biofluorescence, he may have a good chance at answering some of his other questions about the biology of their glowing shells. The green sea turtle, a close cousin of the hawksbill, is still endangered but is slightly more common throughout the world’s oceans. If he can carry out tests on green sea turtles that glow, we may be able to learn what is behind this mysterious phenomenon.
If it turns out that only the hawksbill turtles can exhibit biofluorescence, then answering these questions will become much more difficult. The research process would be much slower, and biologists would likely have to submit plans for the least invasive and dangerous methods of obtaining the chemical information they need to explain the glowing sea turtles.
You can check out a video of the marine biologists right after they spotted the amazing biofluorescent turtle here: