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5 amazing naturally occurring lights

Now we are in dreary November, it’s more than likely you have said (or heard) this expression of an early evening: “Eurgh, I can’t believe I’m putting the lights on already!” Well, that’s not what the lanternfish says when he lights up, and I’m pretty sure you won’t hear anyone complaining about glowing mushrooms either, because nature’s lights can be pretty spectacular…

The lanternfish

Bluntsnout lanternfish

Have you ever heard of the lanternfish? Because I hadn’t… Yet these little chaps (that look like fat whitebait without their battered coating, to me) make up an astonishing 65% of all deep-sea biomass. How common!

Despite being common as muck (and therefore incredibly important to the ecosystem), these fish are quite impressive. As their name suggests, they have something of a lantern about them! They have what are called photophores, which are light-producing organs.

The way these organs are arranged depends on the species; some of them have them right by their eyes like headlamps! Some species have differing patterns for males and females, which is ideal because the vast majority of these fish live in very deep, and therefore dark, water. You want to know who you are chatting up don’t you? Even if you‘re a fish.

The reason for them lighting up is to attract food and a mate. If you think about it, it’s the reason we all light up; food and love!

The jack-o’-lantern mushroom

Luminous jack-o'-lantern mushrooms

There is something otherworldly about mushrooms. They grow on dead/dying things, they invariably look a bit strange, and – to me anyway – they are inextricably linked to fairies, gnomes and other small, magical… things. So finding out that some mushrooms GLOW, just reinforces my view of them!

The jack-o’-lantern mushroom gets its name because it does the two things a jack-o’-lantern does – be orange and light up.

These mushrooms can be found in central and south California, and look a lot like chanterelle mushrooms, however the jack o’ lantern is poisonous! It won’t kill you, but it will make you very sick (among over things). The problem is that the jack-o’-lantern looks so delicious!

If you must go mushroom picking in California (which I wouldn’t advise. Won’t Sainsbury’s do?) make sure you lock yourself in a darkened cupboard with your mushroom before you eat it. If, after your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you see it glowing pale green or blueish, it is not a chanterelle – DO NOT EAT IT!
No one knows exactly why this mushroom glows. We do know, however, that glowing mushrooms have been helpful in the past – for finding your way back home after a night in the woods (before the days of electricity) and to prevent bashing into people. There are tales of WW1 soldiers attaching mushrooms to their helmets so they didn’t bump into each other in the dark trenches!

The glowworm

Curled-up glowworm

Everyone’s heard of these, but did you know that they are not really worms? They are actually little beetles, with wings. Well the boys have wings anyway. The girls are much more worm like – they are a kind of a maggoty shape, but they have legs and a face. And a glow!

The ladies lay in grass, or other low-laying vegetation, and stick their rear-ends in the air. As you can imagine, this is to attract a lad. They wave their glowing undercarriages in the air for around two hours a night.

If they find a mate (result!), they stop glowing. If they don’t, they turn off their light, crawl away and try again the next night. They can do this for up to 10 nights… which seems a little bit desperate, if you ask me.

The interesting thing about these creatures is that they can control their glow; they don’t just do it automatically! Each girl has a slightly different chemical structure which creates the glow (this is determined by genetics) and she is able to control the oxygen supply to her glowing area which determines its brightness. They can even turn it off if they get disturbed. Or, presumably, if they attract a rotter.

Light pillars

Light pillars on a ski slope

The light pillar phenomenon isn’t always entirely natural. Sometimes the light source can be man-made, such as streetlights, or floodlights. However, the display only reveals itself when Mother Nature gets a bit chilly!

The impressive columns of light aren’t actually anywhere to be found, however, except in your eyes or camera lens. It’s a little bit like how you can’t find the end of a rainbow; it’s all an illusion!

When it gets very cold, flat ice crystals (which are usually only found at high altitudes) waft down to much lower levels. The light from, say, a streetlight bounces onto a flat ice crystal and then gets reflected back down again, and into your eyes.
Have a look at this diagram (which I have expertly drawn!) for a better explanation:

Light pillars can be formed upwards or downwards, which sometimes causes false reports of UFOs beaming their lights down onto earth!

The Mekong lights

The Mekong river

Well this is a very strange phenomenon indeed! Also known as Naga fireballs, these lights are seen in/on/above the Mekong river in Thailand and Laos. Orangeish balls of fire rise up from the river surface and shoot up into the night sky before they burn out at around 100 metres.

This happens every year at the end of the rainy season in October and November, but they are not always that predictable. Sometimes there are hundreds of them in one night, sometimes coming from one place and sometimes emerging from all over the river.

No one really knows what these lights are or what causes them. Many locals say that they have seen the lights since they were children, and their grandparents and grandparents before them had seen them too. Of course, these lights are now a huge tourist draw, which prompts the “it’s a hoax” response.

Ideas put forward to explain the phenomenon include gas bubbles rising from the river bed then spontaneously igniting and Laotian soldiers shooting tracer rounds into the sky on the opposite side of the riverbank.

Both theories (along with all the others too) have their faults, so, for now, the Mekong lights remain a mystery! In fact, we don’t even know if they should be in this post or not! Are they naturally occurring? Who knows! I’m fascinated by these lights now… I just hate a mystery! If you want to read more, I really liked this site.

Just – please – if you solve the mystery, I must insist you get in touch immediately! Just make sure you have travel insurance before you head off to get all Scooby Doo about it.

Photo credits: NOAA Photo Library (CC BY 2.0), Noah Siegel (CC BY-SA 3.0), pellaea (CC BY 2.0), nancybeetoo (CC BY 2.0), MarilynJane (CC BY 2.0), nancybeetoo (CC BY 2.0, timo_w2s (CC BY-SA 2.0), Brocken Inaglory (CC BY-SA 3.0), Chmouel Boudjnah (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Allie_Caulfield (CC BY 2.0)