Shining in the Dark

Not much to look at in the light, but spectacular in the dark.

I’m a morning person. I’m rarely in bed past six o’clock, and am often up long before that. But I will admit that even I get tired of getting up in the cold and dark at this time of year.

Of course, sometimes the most amazing things happen before the sun is up.

Yesterday morning, I stepped into the chicken paddock feed ‘the girls’. It was still dark, with just enough starlight to see my way. I bent to tip a scoop of feed into their dish and froze.

Something glowed on the ground—the eerie glow of bioluminescence.

I’ve seen bioluminescence while feeding the chickens before—a tiny sea creature whipped up and blown in with a violent snowstorm—but this was different.

I flicked my light on and saw something pink glistening on the ground. When I tried to pick it up, I discovered it was the head of an earthworm.

A brightly glowing earthworm.

I couldn’t get it out of the ground in order to bring it in and identify it yesterday, but I took the spading fork with me this morning when I went to feed the chickens, and I collected a little glowing earthworm from where I’d seen one yesterday.

I already knew that at least one of our native earthworms is bioluminescent—Octochaetus multiporus, which I’ve blogged about before. But O. multiporus grows to enormous size, and I’ve never found any worms in the garden that match its description. Doing a little research, I found that bioluminescence is quite widely employed by earthworms, presumably as a deterrent to predators.

Most earthworms produce light in much the same way that fireflies do, with a chemical known as luciferin that reacts with oxygen-containing compounds in the presence of luciferase to create light.

So, what species is my little glowing worm? There are about thirty New Zealand species within the genera where bioluminescence has been recorded. I’ve found record of only two of those species being bioluminescent: O. mulitporus and Microscolex phosphoreus, a small worm considered native here, but widely distributed around the globe. My best guess is that it’s M. phosphoreus, but data on that worm’s distribution in New Zealand is almost nonexistent (it’s been recorded from only one location), and data about any earthworm in New Zealand is scanty. Perhaps my worm is M. phosphoreus, but it might also be a worm in which bioluminescence hasn’t been recorded. After all, most people aren’t out in the garden at night to notice glowing worms.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the worm identified by an expert. If not, well, I still think it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long while! And I won’t be grumbling about getting up in the dark and cold tomorrow.

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