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Bioluminescent Worms Welcomed Columbus to the New World

Before Columbus made landfall in the New World 520 years ago today, glowing green worms engaged in a mating dance may have welcomed him first

This lobate ctenophore is another bioluminescent creature that lives off the coast of the Americas. Credit: NOAA

Before Columbus made landfall in the New World, 520 years ago today, glowing green worms may have welcomed him from afar.

The New York Times Green Blog elaborates with descriptions taken from Columbus’ notes, which he wrote in third-person:

At 10 p.m. on Oct. 11, 1492, Christopher Columbus saw a glimmer in the distance as he stood on the deck of the Santa María. The faraway flash was “so small a body that he could not affirm it to be land.”

He called over two of his crew members, but the light was so faint that only one man could discern it. Staring harder, Columbus wrote, he “again perceived it once or twice, appearing like the light of a wax candle moving up and down, which some thought an indication of land.”

Just what were these funny little lights?

Bioluminescent worms called fireworms are a common sight in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Southern California, Belize and British Columbia. They light up the water while performing a circular mating dance before the twice-monthly quarter moon. Each of the little glowworms measures about six-tenths of an inch. They mostly spend their lives munching on corals and sponges on the ocean floor, before swimming to the surface for their spectacular mating dance.

During this dance, the Times explains, females twirls in half inch circles while the males follow them with bright bursts of excited glow. When the males finally catch up to the females in the corkscrew-loop, the females secrete a bluish glowing mucus filled with eggs which the males dutifully fertilize. The whole spectacle is complete within half an hour.

Though it’s impossible to know just what Columbus saw on the next-to-last day of his voyage to the Americas, many experts believe that the fireworms’ dance of passion was the sight that welcomed him to the New World. That, or maybe just a giant luminous squid.

More from Smithsonian.com:

“The Bright Beneath” 
Puerto Rico: Nature and Scientific Wonders 

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