‘Glowing’ sea turtle is first biofluorescent reptile ever recorded

A glowing hawksbill sea turtle surprised researchers, who weren't expecting biofluorescence in a marine reptile. Photo: Screen grab
A glowing hawksbill sea turtle surprised researchers, who weren’t expecting biofluorescence in a marine reptile.

Marine biologists made a shocking discovery while filming biofluorescence in small sharks and coral reefs around the Solomon Islands recently. Out of nowhere, a “glowing” sea turtle came swimming by.

The critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, glowing in neon green and red, is the first reptile scientists have seen exhibiting biofluorescence, National Geographic reported Monday.

David Gruber of the City University of New York and his team made the discovery in late July, saying it looked like a big alien spaceship gliding into view. Details and video of the sea turtle were released for the first time Monday:

“I’ve been [studying turtles] for a long time and I don’t think anyone’s ever seen this,” Alexander Gaos, director of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative, told National Geographic. “This is really quite amazing.”

More from National Geographic:

Biofluorescence is different from bioluminescence, in which animals either produce their own light through a series of chemical reactions, or host bacteria that give off light.

Corals fluoresce, and recent research has found the ability in a number of fish, sharks, rays, tiny crustaceans called copepods, and mantis shrimp. But researchers never expected to find it in a marine reptile…

The marine biologist captured the turtle sighting on a video camera system, whose only artificial illumination was a blue light that matched the blue light of the surrounding ocean. A yellow filter on the camera allowed the scientists to pick up fluorescing organisms.

After a few moments, Gruber stopped following the hawksbill sea turtle, saying he didn’t want to harass it. It swam off into deeper water.

The discovery has Gruber eager to explore a series of unknown questions, such as whether these sea turtles can see the biofluorescence, where do they get this unique ability of fluorescing, how are they using it, and do other sea turtle species possess a similar ability?

“It’d be fairly difficult to study this turtle because there are so few left and they’re so protected,” Gruber told National Geograhic, adding that studying the green sea turtle might be more feasible since they are closely related to the hawksbill sea turtle and slightly more common.

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