Distribution and quantification of bioluminescence as an ecological trait in the deep sea benthos

Sci Rep. 2019 Oct 10;9(1):14654. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-50961-z.


Bioluminescence is a prominent functional trait used for visual communication. A recent quantification showed that in pelagic ecosystems more than 75% of individual macro-planktonic organisms are categorized as able to emit light. In benthic ecosystems, only a few censuses have been done, and were based on a limited number of observations. In this study, our dataset is based on observations from remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives conducted from 1991-2016, spanning 0-3,972 m depth. Data were collected in the greater Monterey Bay area in central California, USA and include 369,326 pelagic and 154,275 epibenthic observations at Davidson Seamount, Guide Seamount, Sur Ridge and Monterey Bay. Because direct observation of in situ bioluminescence remains a technical challenge, taxa from ROV observations were categorized based on knowledge gained from the literature to assess bioluminescence status. We found that between 30-41% of the individual observed benthic organisms were categorized as capable of emitting light, with a strong difference between benthic and pelagic ecosystems. We conclude that overall variability in the distribution of bioluminescent organisms is related to the major differences between benthic and pelagic habitats in the deep ocean. This study may serve as the basis of future investigations linking the optical properties of various habitats and the variability of bioluminescent organism distributions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't