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Using the ocean's living light shows to fight terrorism or track the planet's most massive migration

Biloxi, Mississippi, Oct. 29, 2002 -- Today at the Oceans 2002 conference, HARBOR BRANCH bioluminescence expert Dr. Edith Widder will unveil plans for a unique new device for studying, identifying, and mapping the myriad ocean creatures from bacteria to fish that give off chemical-based light or bioluminescence. Potential applications range from improving the safety of covert operations to tracking the world's most massive migration. Thanks to recently approved appropriations, the program is now receiving nearly $1 million per year in federal funding because of its potential importance in fighting terrorism.

Few oceanic phenomena are more beautiful or surreal than the cosmic light shows put on by the ocean's ubiquitous bioluminescent sea creatures. The shows are seen from the surface, where a swimming dolphin or turbulence from a moving ship can excite living trails of light, to the darkest depths, where bioluminescent creatures constantly create ever-changing constellations of light.

The military has long been interested in studying bioluminescence because, when excited by ships and submarines, those light shows can give away vessels' positions, jeopardizing them and their crews. By the same token, bioluminescence can help the military spot and track enemy vessels. Indeed, in 1918, it was bioluminescence that gave away the position of the last German U-boat sunk during World War I.

While bioluminescence is extremely common in all ocean waters, it is also variable. At certain times there might be few or no bioluminescent organisms to give off light in the wake of a ship or submarine. If the Navy could reliably predict such events it could, for instance, increase the safety of covert missions. Though progress has been made, such a feat has proven difficult because the vast soup of sea creatures involved remains poorly understood. Better understanding of bioluminescence could also lead to its use as a sensitive detection tool for anti-su
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Contact: Mark Schrope
schrope@hboi.edu
772-216-0390
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
29-Oct-2002


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