When someone mentions “neon” to you, it may conjure up images of glow sticks, the famous signs on the Las Vegas strip, Neon Creations (we had to get that in there!) or maybe even evoke memories of the 80’s. In fact, there are many examples of “neon” in the man-made world, but what you may not expect is that there are also many natural “neon” occurrences?
Although we use “neon” in this context as a more generalised term to coin, it is not always an accurate one, as many of these examples stem from some sort of bio-luminescence or fluorescence, and not necessarily referring to the element, neon. So, whether it is at the bottom of the deepest ocean, on the beaches of the Maldives or at the extremes of the North Pole, the natural world has many wonderful examples of vivid and exciting natural neon shows.
One of the most pronounced occurrences of natural neon light is ‘aurora borealis’, or the Northern Lights. This famous fluorescent light show can be seen in the skies above the northern hemisphere and attracts thousands of star gazing tourists to marvel at its sight. The phenomenon is caused by gases in the atmosphere becoming bombarded by energetic electrons, and the result is simply breathtaking.
The Solomon Islands in The Pacific Ocean boast many vast coral reefs, home to hundreds of species of fish and while the beaches may be prime sunbathing locations, it’s at night when they truly come alive. The reefs absorb special proteins which, at night, are bounced off adjoining reefs creating a spectrum of neon shades, so if night swimming is your thing, then you’re guaranteed an astounding show.
Recently, the residents of Vaadhoo (one of the Raa Atoll islands in the Maldives) were treated to a spectacular natural display of bio-luminescence when the tide washing up on their beach glowed a spectacular neon blue. Micro bio-organisms disturbed by Oxygen, probably from a passing ship churning up the water, created a natural chemical reaction causing them to glow making the scene look like something from a sci-fi movie.
The ocean is a rich source of natural examples of fluorescence and many different types of marine animals utilise ‘neon’ in many different ways. For example, certain species of jellyfish use bio-luminescence to appear neon in colour, which helps them to communicate with each other, ward off predators and attract prey of their own. The Anglerfish lives in the depths of the ocean and is known for its hideous appearance with their oversized mouth and protruding teeth. Females of the species have a piece of their dorsal spine protruding above their heads and the end emits a fluorescent light, used to attract prey in the dark depths of the sea.
Credit: National Geographic
Nature’s use of neon is not solely restricted to the sea, though. Swallowtail butterfly wings contain pigment-infused crystals which provide directed fluorescent light, and it is thought that this enables them to communicate and signal with their species. Similarly, Millipedes have the ability to emit fluorescent light and ‘glow’ in the dark, but while this may make them more visible at night, it is predominantly used as a warning sign to predators of consequences if they get too close. Another example of an organism that can ‘glow’ in the dark, with the aid of a black light nonetheless, is a scorpion, and they will fluoresce an eerie green colour due to the presence of nitrogen in their cuticles, but the reason they have this ability is still unknown.
There are many reasons to appreciate the magic of neon, and whether it’s created by nature or man made, the bright colours of neon certainly make for an eye-catching sight!