Thursday, January 19, 2017

Earth’s Natural Wonders: Biobays

(Photo credit: See Puerto Rico)
The phenomenon of bioluminescence is almost unique to the tropics where conditions are suitable for the lives and reproduction of unicellular organisms known as dinoflagellates. This is especially true across the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico and its neighboring islands have been classified as areas of greater concentration and bioluminescent activity in the world, a phenomenon that has been vastly investigated by marine biologists and oceanographers alike.
Bioluminescence has also been studied in a variety of marine organisms in large numbers, such as fish, squid and shrimp, as well as dinoflagellates which are able to emit a “glow” as a defense mechanism against predators (i.e. making them appear bigger), attract prey and during reproduction through mitosis.
(Some) types of dinoflagellates: Noctiluca, Ptychodiscus, Ceratium and Gonyaulax
From a scientific point of view: "Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that occurs in the presence of a protein called luciferin, luciferase enzyme catalyst, molecular oxygen and adenosine triphosphate (ATP)," according to Marine Science Dr. Jennie Ramirez, professor at the Interamerican University of Ponce, Puerto Rico.
The process, according to Dr. Ramirez Mella, occurs as follows: oxygen oxidizes luciferin, luciferin accelerates the reaction and ATP provides the energy for it to become a new substance, oxidized luciferin, which releases excess energy as light. The complete reaction, which produces heat, takes less than one millisecond, and is maintained while the body is excited/alerted or in motion.
The brightness is concentrated in a small area of ​​the organism, which manifests itself in variations of the green to blue flashes being transmitted better in deeper waters. Bioluminescence is best seen in clear nights without moon or rain. During peak conditions, the concentration of microorganisms in Puerto Mosquito can exceed 700,000 per gallon.
Studies conducted by marine scientists agree that geographical and maritime conditions of the island of Puerto Rico are perfect for the development of bioluminescence, specifically by creating the mangrove ecosystem in brines, and unlike other areas in the tropics, such as Jamaica and the Bahamas, where there is lower concentration of dinoflagellates.
Mangroves (red, black, white and button), or marine forests, function as filters or transition zones between land and water. They provide the perfect habitat for Pyrodinium bahamense for its high concentration of nutrients, organic matter and vitamin B12, produced by the decomposition of mangrove leaves, which serve as phytoplankton for these microorganisms.
Pyrodinium bahamense
In addition, these bays have other peculiarities, essential to preserving the conditions of the ecosystem, such as: narrow outlets to the sea, shallowness, low rainfall, high evaporation rate, water salinity and the absence of contaminants. The high temperatures in the area are reflected above 78ºF. The bottom is composed of clay, silt and organic matter. In addition, these bays are home to a great variety of marine species. All these are determinants to the microorganisms’ growth and the stability of the ecosystem.
Since the coasts along the island of Puerto Rico are very similar in composition, the scientific community does not rule out that Puerto Rico has had other active bioluminescent bodies of water in the region in the past, including in several lagoons in San Juan and Loíza. However, urban development, mangrove cutting, solid waste, the use of motor vehicles, and even artificial lighting, are among the main causes of the disappearance or gradual decrease in bioluminiscence.
BioBay (Vieques). Photo credit: My Puerto Rico Experience
For the benefit of tourists and nature lovers, the bays of Puerto Mosquito in Vieques Island, La Parquera in Lajas, and Laguna Grande in Fajardo, allow entry of visitors and trips, supported by the Department of Natural Resources and conservation trusts.
Once across the bay: the scenario is completely transformed. Our view focuses on the mangroves, a forest of huge roots forming curves that rise between the calm waters, guarded by a light-frame of green branches. One of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, the mangroves provide habitat for wildlife and marine life while contributing to the maintenance of food chains and water filtration.
At night, the bay is transformed into a breath-taking water show with the forest of mangroves barely noticeable in the darkness. Occasionally, you may spot fireflies and hundreds of bright stars in the sky as you swim or as your canoe makes its way through the waters where all its marine species flash and sparkle... like inviting you to be part of their magical dance.

Have you experienced the magic of bioluminescence? Share your story below!

Thanks for reading!

Carrero Galarza, Milton D. "La Bioluminiscencia: Una Maravilla Vulnerable." Oficina De Comunicaciones Del Programa De Colegio Sea Grant De La Universidad De Puerto Rico: Revista Marejada (2009).

Dr. Miguel Sastre Wirshing, Fernando Abruña, Mark Martin, et al. Primer Simposio sobre Bioluminiscencia en Puerto Rico (First Symposium on Bioluminescence in Puerto Rico). 2009. Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust. Vieques Island, Puerto Rico

Volunteer experience at the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust

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