Scientists explain Tasmania’s glowing aurora australis, sea sparkle, glow worm attractions

From glow worms to sea sparkles and bioluminescent mushrooms, nature shines right across Australia. Due to its climate, geography and biodiversity, Tasmania is a nexus for glowing oddities. The aurora australis and sea sparkles can be captured in the same photo.

Biologist and author, Lisa-ann Gershwin, said Tasmania was a hot spot for things that glowed.

When the conditions are right, a large algae bloom can make the water sparkle in a flash of bright blue light. The dinoflagalette is a species noctiluca scintillans, commonly found in the coastal waters of New South Wales and and in more recent years in Tasmania. Dinoflagellates are a distinct branch of algae, different from plants and green algae. Blue algae eat other algae.

In the daylight, the algae could look red but could also be green or brown depending on what it ate. At night, its shimmering blue bioluminescence becomes visible due disturbance and the following chemical reaction. The flash is to deter prey that might come and eat it.

It is the same internal chemical reaction that also causes some species of fungi to glow in the dark, known as ghost mushrooms.

Glow worms can also be found in caves and shaded forest across Australia. These luminous little insects are actually maggots, the larval form of gnats. The light emitted by a chemical reaction in the glow worms is a deceptive prey trap. They attract prey to come to the light which then get caught in these sticky mucus snares.

Natural glowing wonders can be broken down into two categories: bioluminescence and biofluorescence. Biofluorescence is a phenomena that can make animals glow fluorescent under certain light. In 2020 it was discovered that Australian mammals glowed under UV light. While bioluminescence is down to chemistry, biofluorescence is physics and could occur in natural and human made things such as a shoe or dishwashing liquid. Science still doesn’t know why some Australian mammals glow or what they see.

Read more about Tasmania’s glowing phenomenons in the original ABC article here!