SEP 19, 2021 5:52 AM PDT

Glowing Gophers? Bioluminescence Discovered in These Rodents

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Bioluminescence can be found in a variety of creatures, like squid or fireflies, but have you heard of bioluminescent gophers? Researchers have discovered that pocket gophers, which are little solitary rodents that live in sandy soil underground, will glow under UV light. The findings have been reported in The American Midland Naturalist.

A pocket gopher illuminated with UV light. Credit  UGA

Lead study author J.T. Pynne, Ph.D. knew that opossums and flying squirrels had been found to be bioluminescent, so he was inspired to investigate the phenomenon in pocket gophers and other animals at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Pynne said that in 2019, the research team looked for bioluminescence "in the flying squirrels we had, and sure enough, it worked. So, I said, ‘Well, what else do we have?’ And it turned out, pocket gophers, flying squirrels and opossums were the only animal specimens that fluoresced. And I’m thinking, of course my strange little animals do this.”

Bioluminescent animals became a kind of research trend, and scientists documented it in a variety of animals including the platypus, birds, fish, and scorpions.

"So now people have started to ask, why do they fluoresce?” said Warnell professor Steven Castleberry. “There’s some speculation and hypotheses, but nobody really knows the truth.”

It could be some a way for animals to communicate, or a defense mechanism. It might also serve little purpose, and be a holdover from an earlier time. Behavioral research might help illuminate the mystery, but for now we'll have to speculate.

“We have known for a long time that arthropods fluoresced. Any time I catch a scorpion or a spider or a millipede and I have my black light, they’re bright blue,” said Pynne. “It’s probably more of a cool teaching thing than anything.”

Sources: University of Georgia, The American Midland Naturalist

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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