Underwater light show was glow of 3 new species, study says. See the video from Japan

Diving off the coast of Japan, scuba divers spotted an underwater light show. The small blue-purple lights seemed to pulse through the surrounding dark water. When scientists took a closer look at the source of the glow, they discovered three new species.

A team of researchers at Nagoya University were intrigued by the bioluminescent creatures lurking along the seafloor, the scientists said in a study published Wednesday, March 29, in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

The team focused their research on Polycirrus, a type of bioluminescent marine worm that doesn’t take a solid shape. The worms inhabit a variety of underwater habitats, with different species being found in sandy areas and coral reefs.

Scuba diving at several spots off the coast of southern Japan, the researchers spotted what they were looking for in the form of small lights flickering along the ocean floor. The team collected specimens and analyzed the creatures at a lab.

They discovered three new species of Polycirrus worms. Their tentacles glow an “intense purple-blue” color when hit by the bubbles of scuba gear or poked by tweezers in a lab, the study said. Video shows a group of these worms glowing along the ocean floor.

All three worms were identified as new species based on their unique body shapes and the arrangement of their tentacles.

The first new species was named Polycirrus onibi after the “onibi” creature of Japanese folklore, a “floating blue flame” that “represents the soul of a deceased human or animal,” and is “often equated with the Will-o’-the-wisp,” researchers said.

Polycirrus onibi worms measured about an inch in length and 0.1 inches in width. The transparent worms were thicker near the top and tapered toward the end. Photos show the squiggly marine animal. The worm was found about 3 feet down among the muddy sediment off the coast of Sugashima and Notojima islands, per researchers.

Close up photo of Polycirrus onibi.
Close up photo of Polycirrus onibi.

The second species, Polycirrus ikeguchii, was similar in size and also had a transparent body. Notably, it had some lighter orange hues and red dots along the ends of its tentacles. Photos show the creature’s pom-pom-like head narrowing to a thin tail. The name honors Shinichiro Ikeguchi, the former deputy director of the Notojima Aquarium who “contributed to the discovery of the luminescence phenomenon of this species,” the study explained.

The glowing worm was discovered near Notojima island and the coastal city of Tottori, according to researchers.

Close up photo of Polycirrus ikeguchii.
Close up photo of Polycirrus ikeguchii.

The third sea worm was named Polycirrus aoandon after a Japanese folk spirit, the blue lantern, that matches its glow. In Japanese, blue is “ao” and lantern is “andon,” the study said.

The creature is about 1.7 inches long and has a distinct orange coloring. Photos show the worm’s tangled, knot-looking shape. It was discovered 3 to 6 feet underwater among “muddy sediments under rocks” off Sugashima island, the study said.

Close up photo of Polycirrus aoandon.
Close up photo of Polycirrus aoandon.

Researchers theorized the worms glow as “a defensive response to potential threats” but noted that further research is needed.

The study also noted that the categorization of Polycirrus as a group within the larger class of Polychaetes marine worms is contested among scientists.

The sea worms’ habitats at Notojima (b), Sugashima (c) and the Shirawara (d).
The sea worms’ habitats at Notojima (b), Sugashima (c) and the Shirawara (d).

Notojima island and the region of Tottori are located on the Sea of Japan, several hundred miles west of Tokyo. The island of Sugashima is located on the Pacific Ocean, several hundred miles southwest of Tokyo.

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