Edith Widder on Mimicking the Glow of Deep Sea Fish to Discover New Species

widder glowing jellyfish photo
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The common deep-sea jellyfish Atolla wyvillei as it appears under white light. Photos courtesy of Edith Widder

Ever since her fascinating TED Talk during the Mission Blue Voyage, we've been in awe of scientist Edith Widder's work. She's come up with bright new ways (quite literally) to study life in the deep sea using bioluminescence. By creating a tool that mimics the glowing light from animals like jellies and angler fish, she's helped marine scientists understand more about these strange creatures, and even has discovered a new species of squid. She was generous enough to take time to discuss the art of watching fish with flashing lights, and what that means to the conservation of our oceans. Check out her short interview, and more photos of strange deep-sea swimmers.

widder fish photo

A deep-sea fish with a built-in headlight used to seek out prey and attract mates. This fish, sometimes referred to as the rat-trap fish, has a remarkable jaw that can unhinge allowing the fish to swallow prey bigger than itself.
TH: You used biomimicry in a somewhat different way -- not to create something new, but to study the animals themselves. How exactly do you go about finding these deep-sea glowing beings to study them?

EW: Finding animals that make light in the ocean is easy. Just drag a net through the water anywhere in the upper 3000 feet and as many as 80-90% of the animals you catch can make light. The biomimetic lure that I developed imitates one of these - a common deep sea jellyfish called Atolla. The lure is just 16 blue lights embedded around the circumference of a round epoxy mold that is shaped like the jelly. When caught in the clutches of a predator the jelly produces a light display that is a pinwheel of light that is basically a call for help. It serves to attract the attention of a larger predator that may attack their attacker thereby affording them an opportunity for escape. This kind of "flashy" bioluminescent display is called a burglar alarm because just like an alarm it attracts attention, so I thought it might work to lure predators into the field of view of a camera.

And it turned out that it did. In fact the very first time we turned on that pinwheel display it attracted a squid over six feet long that is so new to science it can't be placed in any known scientific family. I couldn't have asked for a better proof of concept.

widder lure photo

The electronic jellyfish lure designed to imitate the pinwheel bioluminescent display of the Atolla wyvillei
TH: How important is it to continually shift the way we study animals in order to better understand them?

EW: Our methods for studying animals in the ocean are still very limited. A lot of our information about life in the deep ocean comes from exploration with submersibles and remote operated vehicles that use noisy thrusters and bright lights that scare many animals away.

We've actually explored only about 5% of the ocean and most of that has been with platforms that are highly disruptive and have little chance of revealing normal behaviors. If we are to be good stewards of the ocean we need to understand what lives there and how the animals interact with each other and with their environment, which means we need to be constantly seeking new and improved methods for exploration and observation.

widder squid photo

A new species of squid attracted by the electronic jellyfish lure.
TH: What makes bioluminescence such an important topic of study? What can we learn from these glowing creatures, which you've noted are the rule, not the exception, in deep seas?

EW: Bioluminescence is the rule rather than the exception among animals living in the open ocean - earth's largest habitat. Animals use it to help them survive in the dark, where they use their chemically produced light to attract mates, evade predators and to seek out prey. It is clear that if we are going to understand ocean ecosystems we need to understand the part that bioluminescence plays in those ecosystems.

Bioluminescence is also a useful tool for research and medical science. Different animals manufacture different chemicals to make light and scientists have isolated some of these chemicals and applied them to enormous advantage to reveal the inner workings of cells and as biosensors to monitor such things as toxins in the environment or the effectiveness of antibacterial agents and cancer fighting drugs.

At the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) we use bioluminescence as a kind of canary in the coal mine - a broad spectrum bioassay - to detect toxins in marine sediments and to make pollution visible. We can't stop the pollution entering marine ecosystems until we can show where it is coming from.

widder camera photo

Moored Eye-in-the-Sea, a deep-sea web cam
TH: Tell us about the world's first deep sea webcam that your research helped create, located in Monterey Canyon.

EW: I wanted some way to explore and study life in the deep ocean without scaring and/or blinding the animals. To achieve that goal I developed the Eye-in-the-Sea camera system, which uses far red light that is invisible to most open ocean dwellers that can only see blue light.

The first version of this camera was battery powered and kluged together from a variety of funding sources. It was that crude system, used with the electronic jellyfish lure, that recorded the new species of squid. That discovery helped lead to significant funding from the National Science Foundation that allowed us to build a much more elaborate system that wasn't limited to brief battery-powered visits, but was powered by cable from shore. That cable, which went down 900 m in the Monterey Canyon off California, carried power to the camera and video data back to shore, where we made it available on the web for most of the year that it was down there.

It was the world's first deep-sea web cam where anyone could peak into the deep-sea anytime they liked and observe life in the ocean unobtrusively. We recorded all of that data and have only begun to analyze it. In fact we are now trying to get funding that will allow us to make those recordings available on the web so that we can get school children and others to help analyze it. You can see some of the recordings made with the battery powered system on our website.

widder shrimp photo

This shrimp spews bioluminescence out of its mouth like a fire breathing dragon in order to temporarily blind a predator allowing the shrimp time to escape into the darkness. The predator, in this case, is a viperfish that has bioluminescent light organs all along its belly that it uses to camouflage itself against downwelling sunlight. This trick, called counterillumination, is used by many fish, shrimp and squid to help them hide from predators swimming below them.

TH: How might cameras, and more biomimetic devices, like these be used in Sylvia Earle's "hope spots" to study and protect deep sea animals?

We have a new camera system called the Medusa that uses the same principles as the Eye-in-the-Sea to be unobtrusive, but instead of needing to be deployed by a submersible or Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) it is a lander that can be tossed off a ship and drift down to as deep as 2000 m where it sits on the bottom recording unobtrusively for up to 60 hours before being recovered by sending an acoustic signal that causes it to drop a 75 pound weight and float to the surface.

We have just returned from a mission in the Gulf of Mexico where we were using the Medusa as part of an expedition that Sylvia Earle organized to help seek out "hope spots" that can help revitalize the Gulf. These special places of high biodiversity need to be found so that they can be protected from trawling, over fishing and pollution and serve as refugia for the revitalization of the Gulf.

Once a "hope spot" is declared a marine protected area it needs to be monitored in order to insure its long term health. It would be wonderful if we could have monitoring stations with web cams at these sites in order to better study and protect them.