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, 45 (2), 234-46

The Red and the Black: Bioluminescence and the Color of Animals in the Deep Sea


The Red and the Black: Bioluminescence and the Color of Animals in the Deep Sea

Sönke Johnsen. Integr Comp Biol.


The colors of deep-sea species are generally assumed to be cryptic, but it is not known how cryptic they are and under what conditions. This study measured the color of approximately 70 deep-sea species, both pelagic and benthic, and compared the results with two sets of predictions: 1) optimal crypsis under ambient light, 2) optimal crypsis when viewed by bioluminescent "searchlights." The reflectances of the pelagic species at the blue-green wavelengths important for deep-sea vision were far lower than the predicted reflectances for crypsis under ambient light and closer to the zero reflectance prediction for crypsis under searchlights. This suggests that bioluminescence is more important than ambient light for the visual detection of pelagic species at mesopelagic depths. The reflectances of the benthic species were highly variable and a relatively poor match to the substrates on which they were found. However, estimates of the contrast sensitivity of deep-sea visual systems suggest that even approximate matches may be sufficient for crypsis in visually complex benthic habitats. Body coloration was generally uniform, but many crabs had striking patterns that may serve to disrupt the outlines of their bodies.

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