Ocean wonders abound in Field Museum's 'Creatures of Light'

It's dark in the rooms that hold the new exhibition at the Field Museum, dark almost like in the deep ocean where many of the featured "Creatures of Light" live.

It's dim enough to get you wondering if you, too, after enough time in an environment like this would evolve some sort of bodily glow. Think of it: a little flasher down in the trunk, perhaps, like a firefly's. Or maybe a glowing lure extending from your forehead, like on an angler fish. Hello, ladies!

"Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence" opens Thursday and is a fascinating journey into the under-known — and disorienting enough to put strange ideas in your head. That's because it's mostly about animals discovered deep in the ocean, down below where sunlight can penetrate and where some 80 percent of creatures, visitors learn, have developed a light source in response. (This evolution, we should note, took somewhat longer than the couple of hours you might spend in a museum show.)

But the show is also disorienting because bioluminescence is such an affront to the terrestrial norm. Mammals don't shimmer. Monkeys don't shine. And only one mammalian species has developed such compensatory tactics as flashlights, glow sticks or, in this case, explanatory signage lit from behind.

We do, topside, have the firefly, and the exhibit developed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (in collaboration with the Field and the Canadian Museum of Nature) wisely opens with the insect that is most everyone's best and most memorable experience with bioluminescence.

It's not a fly, at all, we learn, but a beetle, one that developed its distinctive glow over time and has learned to flash it in distinctive, recognizable patterns as a mating signal. Some fireflies do their glowing in unison, nature's own flash mob.

Glowing body parts — also seen on land in some mushrooms and "glow worms," which are insect larvae — are also a defense mechanism, thought to be a sign to would-be predators that the critter in question will taste bad. (This is a lesson humans can apply the next time they ponder a Gatorade flavor.)

At the Field, a "firefly tree" simulates what the beetles look like when they glow together. Around its base, the designers have placed five iPads, also glowing together, their screens showcasing the exhibit's very good companion application.

You can get the app (called "Creatures of Light"; for free and preview the exhibition on your own. But it's well worth seeing in three dimensions.

Although the science is sufficiently detailed to satisfy adults and older kids, the presentation is vibrant, and for every detailed explanation of, for instance, how biofluorescence differs from bioluminescence, there's a much-bigger-than-life-size overhead model of a firefly or an anglerfish or a vampire squid.

The many iPads — technoluminescence — and other touch screens throughout, plus the show's uncluttered layout and dark-nightclub look, make this one that younger kids should have fun exploring as well. And background music composed for the exhibit, with a sort of dreamy, Kronos Quartet feel, heightens the otherworldly mood.

A caveat: There is not much "bio" in "Nature's Bioluminescence," as least in terms of live animals. There are no live fireflies, as you might expect. There will be flashlight fish, but they were not in the tanks in time for Tuesday's press preview.

The rest is mostly models, specimens, some video and a spectacular photograph of bioluminescence on a coral reef wall off the Cayman Islands.

The show is modestly interactive, in the iPads and in a flashlight visitors can use to simulate firefly light patterns. But mostly it's a lot of information laid out on circular, glowing signs, portholes of knowledge in the dark.

The interest comes from seeing this one quality explored and, when possible, explained across life forms, bringing, for instance, mushrooms and squid together somewhere other than on an appetizer list. It also comes from being able to dip a toe into largely unvisitable realms, such as the deepest ocean.

Leaving behind a simulated glowworm cave (made of black fabric tubes; it's sort of a hipster Habitrail), visitors cross a wooden bridge from land into the marine world, the bulk of the exhibit. Four in five known creatures generating light are from the oceans, and the thinking is that many more in the deep ocean have yet to be discovered.

From the seemingly electric glows of Caribbean dinoflagellates, or plankton, in a Puerto Rican bay, to how various fish use light for defense, for sex or for prey, it's told well.

Green fluorescent protein discovered in the crystal jelly has led to a whole field of science using such proteins to illuminate biological processes. The discoverer, Osamu Shimomura, won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

But perhaps the best part of this exhibition comes at the end, in the roomful of material that Field staff added on to the show that was at the New York museum last year.

It's a glass case containing 67 specimen jars, examples from the Field's own collection of marine life that was bioluminescent when alive.

They are, mostly, shockingly small when compared with some of the big models you've just witnessed. But they are also real, sitting there in alcohol in jars, and that counts for a lot.

The variety of their names alone brings to mind the experience of selecting a house paint. But instead of the comic grasping of paint monikers, these names are especially descriptive, at times even poetic: Chilean smooth-head, pearly lanternfish, pelican eel, footballfish, many-hooked abralia, deep-water helmet jelly, soft leafvent angler and more.

And amid this diversity the story becomes one not just of bioluminescence but of the vastness of the ocean and even of life itself.
Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence'
$23 adults, $16 children (includes $15 adult basic admission); 312-992-9410 or
Through Sept. 8
Where: Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive

Copyright © 2018, CT Now