What Makes the Jungle Glow at Night

What Makes the Jungle Glow at Night

It’s actually one of the darkest places on Earth. But despite this, some parts of Brazil’s Pantanal wetland – a protected nature reserve 10 times the size of Melbourne – are so brightly lit-up at night that you’d be able to read a book there. The reason: green termite hills, some of which can reach eight metres in height. But it’s not the termites that are responsible for this nightly light show, but rather the larval form of the Brazilian click beetle. The larvae are found in small holes in the outer walls of the mounds, where they sit with their glowing heads sticking out. Their greenish glow seems to have one function – to attract prey. Because they would be hard to spot in high grass, they colonise the termite hills instead.

The source of their light is one of the most ingenious inventions in nature: bioluminescence. Their light power is enormous and extremely efficient as well. The larvae use a chemical process to gain energy: an enzyme, luciferase, ensures that an endogenous chemical compound, luciferin, reacts with oxygen. In the process energy is freely released in the form of photons (light particles). The light efficacy lies at around the same level as modern LED bulbs. Like LEDs the larvae also produce “cold light” – emitting up to 10,000 times less chemically generated energy in the form of heat than a lightbulb.

Researchers are at odds over whether the termites welcome the luminescent beetle larvae, or simply tolerate them. Most are of the opinion that the termites can’t do anything to stop them: they have no chance against the ravenous larvae that set up home in the mound’s walls. But it’s not all bad news for the termites: some of their predators (like ants) are on the larvae’s menu.

The termite mounds only light up for a few days each year – immediately following the first downpours of the rainy season. Photographer Ary Bassous spent almost a decade trying to capture this magical moment but only succeeded last year. “I was scared of jaguars and other dangerous animals, but it was worth it,” says Bassous.

Beneath the glowing green facades of the termite mounds, invisible highways connect the individual hills. But a pair of eyes cannot see these termite roads. They are made of invisible pheromone trails – complex scent codes that govern traffic, closing off routes or pointing the termites in the right direction.

Looking at the illuminated mounds, you’d be forgiven for thinking that termites like to leave the lights on at night. But that’s deceiving. Termites are blind. The light comes from the larvae of click beetles that live in small burrows in the outer walls of termite mounds.

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