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Project title or topic of activity

Light in the Dark: A study on bioluminescence

Author(s): Kerry Dorr

Date: Fall 1999


Summary of Activity
50-100 words

This activity is designed to teach students about bioluminescence and its significance in the mesopelagic (midwater) and deep sea. A brief introduction to bioluminescence will start things off: Define bioluminescence, discuss the kinds of animals (use pictures) that use bioluminescence, discuss how it works, and discuss the environments it is found in. Next, show a video clip to illustrate bioluminescence and the animals that use it. The students will then participate in a glow stick activity that will allow them to be bioluminescent creatures in the deep sea. The students will need to work together for this hands-on activity. Next, the students will get to design their own midwater/deep sea fish that uses bioluminescence. Finally, the instructor can follow up the lesson by giving out a worksheet on bioluminescence for the students to complete, or by giving a small quiz.


Grade levels

This lesson plan is designed for grade levels 5-8.

General description or introduction
The scientific principles that the activity is founded on.

Bioluminescence is the production of light by living organisms (including animals and chemosynthetic bacteria); using light organs called photophores. The light results from a chemical reaction involving enzymes and specialized phosphorus-containing molecules. Bioluminescence is found in species of bacteria, algae, fungi, and invertebrate animals. This light appears on the outside of an animalÕs body and is usually seen as flashes. Many animals use bioluminescence for communication, to attract prey and mates, and to avoid predators. Bioluminescence can be found in animals in the deep sea, such as fish, as well as in land animals, such as fireflies. This lesson plan is fun and engaging for students. It will take approximately 2 hours.

Background information

Bioluminescence helps us to better understand life in the mesopelagic and deep sea. The mesopelagic zone is the open water environment that ranges from a depth of 100-200 meters to 1,000 meters. This zone, also called the midwater zone, does not support phytoplankton or other plants because light is very dim. This means that photosynthesis cannot take place here. Krill, copepods, and ostracods are small crustaceans common to the environment. Arrow worms, squid, and many small fish, including bristlemouths and lanternfishes are also found in this environment. Animals that live in the mesopleagic possess photophores, which are specialized organs that produce light.

The bioluminescent photophores of mesopelagic animals produce light that helps the animal blend in with the background. This is called counterillumination, which is similar to countershading. Most mesopelagic bioluminescence is blue-green. Many of the animals can control their bioluminescence, making it bright for bright backgrounds and dim for dim ones. This can be very important for avoiding predation, for attracting prey, and for communication and courtship. Some animals use photophores to produce bioluminescence, while others use specialized tissues, and others have symbiotic bacteria that live in specialized cells and produce the light.

Bioluminescence is as common to the deep sea as it is to the mesopelagic. However, deep-sea organisms do not use bioluminescence for counterillumination. It is too dark in the deep sea for this to be effective. Instead, it is used for attracting prey, communication, and for courtship. Deep-sea animals mostly include fishes with the following characteristics: small size, small eyes, large mouths, expandable stomachs, and poorly developed swim bladders. Bristlemouths and anglerfishes are the most common to this area.

Credit for the activity

This is an original idea. However, my professor, Katrina Mangin, and my graduate teaching assistant, Heather Bleakley, gave me the idea and information for the glow stick activity.

Estimated time to do the activity

It will take approximately 2 hours.

Goals of Activity:

Goal A
Have the students develop and understanding of bioluminescence.

Goal B
I want the students to learn mesopelagic/deep-sea animals.

Goal C
Have the students understand why bioluminescence is important.

Goal D
Have the students expand their thinking and begin to think further about the significance of adaptation to ecology.


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:

Standard 1
Students should be able to recognize patterns in ecosystems and develop understandings about the cellular dimensions of living systems. They should expand their knowledge of one organism and apply it to populations and communities. For bioluminescence, the students should learn to apply it as an adaptation and not just a characteristic.

Standard 2
Students should be able to develop an understanding of the diversity and the adaptations of organisms. Although species look dissimilar, the students should be able to develop an understanding of the unity among organisms by analyzing similar components.


Materials Needed

  • Construction paper,
  • Popsicle sticks,
  • crayons and/or markers,
  • scissors, glow in the dark paint,
  • glow in the dark glue (both are available at Walgreens).
  • One to two packages of glow sticks (depending on class size), which are also available at WalgreenÕs or Party City.
  • Pictures of mesopelagic and deep-sea animals, such as bristlemouth fish, lanternfish, anglerfish, squid, and krill (A good book to use is Ocean by Miranda MacQuitty, which can be found at Barnes and Noble Bookstores).
  • Pictures should be enlarged and placed on posterboard.
  • A video on the topic of bioluminescence is also needed. The video shows animals emitting their bioluminescence. It also gives an in depth look at what bioluminescence is and how it works. The video can be found at the University of Arizona Library, or can be ordered from the Discovery Channel.


All of the background information should be prepared, the posterboards with the animal pictures should be ready, and the video should be ready.

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

The activity is for the whole class (approximately 25 students).

1) Start by giving the students a brief introduction: Define bioluminescence, discuss how it works, and discuss what kinds of environments it would be found in.
2) Ask the students what kinds of animals they think would have bioluminescence. This will help engage the students in the lesson. Then show them pictures of bioluminescent organisms.
3) Put the video in for them to watch. The video shouldnÕt last longer than 15 minutes. This will help them see first hand what bioluminescence is and how it works.
4) Prepare the students for the glow stick activity. The classroom should be arranged so that there are not any obstacles in the center of the room.
5) Give each student a glow stick. It is necessary to bend them so that the chemical reaction is activated and the stick begins to glow.
6) Choose a couple of students who will get to be the predators the number of predators will depend on the size of the class. For a class of 25, there should be about 3-4 predators.
7) Divide the other students into groups. Each group represents a different species of bioluminescent organisms.
8) The students can come up with secret flashes on their stick so that they know their group from another group. The goal is to not get eaten by the predator.
9) Send the predators into the hall.
10) The groups should be broken up. The groups should try and find each other so that they can reproduce. The students should try and find the other members of their group based on their secret flashing code.
11) Turn all the light off and let the predators into the room. The predators are going to tag anyone they can. If a student gets tagged, then they must they are out and must wait until the next game starts.
12) If two members of the same group find each other, then they can go release another member of their group that has been tagged.
13) The game will end if the predator tags everybody.
14) This can be done a number of different times and the different people can play the predators.
15) After this is complete and everyone has settled down, pass out the necessary materials for the students to design their own bioluminescent organism. Glow in the dark paint and glue is available. After the pictures are drawn and cut out, glue (or tape) a Popsicle stick on the end so that they can be held like a lollipop.
16) Show and tell each studentÕs animal.
17) End the lesson with a worksheet on bioluminescence, or a small quiz to check and see what they have learned.

Images, work sheets, additional web pages

{none available}

Items for discussion or conclusion

1st question

How is bioluminescence related to adaptation?

2nd question
Why is bioluminescence significant to ecology?

3rd question
Are there any terrestrial animals that are able to utilize bioluminescence

4th question
{Question 4}


Bioluminescence is an adaptation used by many animals, some in the sea and some on land. It is used to increase their survival success by helping them with communication. Bioluminescence has many ecological benefits that can be applied to the principles of ecology.

Beyond the Activity
Further activities which relate to and extend the complexity of the experiment.

A further activity could demonstrate how bioluminescence affects other species. The students could also come up with some ideas on how humans use light, and how it is extremely important to our everyday lives. This lesson plan could lead into a discussion on bacteria because many types of bacteria take part in bioluminescence.

Web Resources
A web address with information on the topic of the activity.

Web Address

Additional References

Marine Biology by Peter Castro and Michael Huber, McGraw Hill, 2000