Field Museum exhibit lights up glowing creatures, plants
You know him. Swaggering around, on the hunt for the opposite sex. The minute there's any encouragement, he beams at her and makes his move.
Typical Phausis reticulata.
Also known as the male firefly, and one of the stars of the Field Museum's Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence exhibit that just opened and runs through Sept. 8.
And although "bioluminescence" may cause your eyes to glaze over, the exhibit won't. Full of colorful characters, it examines the world of light-producing plants, fish, bugs and other organisms that populate the world's forests and oceans.
It's a painless way to absorb science for both adults and children with interactive displays that explain how these unique creatures use their natural radiance to flirt, fight foes and turn unsuspecting passers-by into a meal.
"I want people to be amazed by the sheer variety of ways animals can use light, it's such a strange solution to so many different things -- to get a date or lure prey," exhibitions project manager Janet Hong said. "It's amazing how this has come up in evolution so many times."
Creatures of Light starts off in North America with a giant, glowing mushroom display and a close-up look at fireflies, that allows visitors to emit their own personal light signal although it's not guaranteed you'll attract any interested females.
The exhibit "naturally lends itself to both children and adults," assistant curator of fishes Leo Smith said. "Because of the giant models and the fact we focus on the diversity of animals and mushrooms and fishes that have bioluminescence, everyone likes it. It focuses on animals and not the details of the chemistry."
To that end, the exhibit winds around to a glowworm cave in New Zealand, a coral wall in the Cayman Islands, a scorpion's habitat and a vampire squid's underwater den.
Fans of "Finding Nemo," will gravitate to the larger-than-life anglerfish in the Deep Sea Theater section to check out the predator that nearly finished off anxious parent Marlin in the Pixar movie.
The female anglerfish attracts victims with a glowing fin and tendrils that light up because of internal bacteria. The display also includes a much smaller male anglerfish, hanging on to the female.
"The distances are so vast in this part of the ocean -- that when a male and female anglerfish find each other -- they're so happy to see each other that the male attaches himself to the female and his nervous system dissolves away ... so he becomes a kind of a parasite," Hong explained.
But light-producing organisms offer more than fun factoids, Smith noted. The 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to scientists who inserted a fluorescent protein from a jellyfish into other creatures, including worms. The experiment worked and now it's being used in research to track diseases, giving insight into how cancer cells multiply, for example.
"We haven't put these genes into humans yet, but who knows what the future holds," Smith said.
Some young critics from Whittier School in Chicago gave the show positive reviews. "They're cute and creepy," 8-year-old Brenda Rivera said as she scrutinized some specimens of light-producing organisms.
Her top-rated display? "I think I'll go with the fireflies because it's really interesting how they make their own special light," she said.
But there's one major scientific question, the exhibit doesn't answer.
Is it firefly or lightning bug?
"Day to day, I switch between lightning bugs or fireflies ... I don't know why," Smith said.
Creatures of LightThe Field Museum: 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. Exhibit runs until Sept. 8
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Contact: (312) 922-9410 or visit http://fieldmuseum.org/. The museum also offers a companion app, which can be downloaded free at the iTunes store.