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Local Life

DMNS exhibit lets there be lights

Glowing life forms fascinate visitors at Denver Museum of Nature & Science


The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has played host to countless numbers of traveling exhibits over the years. These exhibits come from all over the world, and from some of the most respected institutions of learning and exploration.

But that presents a challenge for museum staff — how to make an exhibit that visitors may have seen before feel fresh.

“Any time we get an exhibit, we look for ways to add our own stamp,” said Eric Godoy, program specialist with the museum. “We go through our own collections and work with scientists to add something new. We also have great organizations to work with.”

That’s how “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” the museum’s new exhibit, running through June 10, came to feature contributions from Westminster’s Butterfly Pavilion and the Denver Botanic Gardens.

“The best part of working with organizations like the gardens, DMNS or the zoo is that we all do different things, and we do them really well,” said Mario Padilla, entomologist with the Butterfly Pavilion. “We all have the same missions of education, but in different areas. So, these kinds of opportunities allow us to provide a new kind of experience.”

The exhibit was organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and The Field Museum in Chicago.

The exhibit shines a light on creatures that other natural things that blink, glow, flash and flicker thanks to bioluminescence and biofluorescence. Perhaps the most immediately recognizable of these creatures will be fireflies, even though the insect only rarely lights up Colorado’s evenings. But there’s a wide swath of beautiful and bizarre creatures from the world over to examine.

Some of the most beautiful glowing items don’t do a whole lot of moving — it’s things like minerals and fungi. To make learning about these materials more interactive, there’s a black light feature where guests can see which minerals glow, and how brightly. And thanks to Dr. Andrew Wilson, assistant curator of mycology at the Denver Botanic Gardens, guests can also see living glowing mushroom — specifically Armillaria mellea and Panellus stipticus.

“Fungi such as lichens and the mushroom genus Cortinarius have tissues that fluoresce under a black light,” Wilson explained. “Right now I’m trying to figure out the best conditions and cultures for optimal glow, but the cultures I have are doing pretty well. When visitors see it, it’s an eerie green glow that the fungus is producing all by itself.”

For more mobile creatures, the exhibit starts out on the land with an examination of fireflies, glowworms and scorpions — all of which have their own important reasons for luminescence.

“It’s poorly understood why scorpions fluoresce,” said Padilla, who brought some live Arizona desert hairy scorpions to the museum for the exhibit. “We think they might use their exoskeleton to detect their environment and determine if they’re in danger of exposure.”

From there, the exhibit goes to the water, where up to 90 percent of animals at depths below 700 meters are bioluminescent. First, visitors can stroll across an interactive Puerto Rican lagoon that lights up a trail of flashes from tiny “pyrotechnic” plankton.

The deeper the visitors goes into the ocean, the stranger the animals become. This includes female anglerfish, which have their own built-in fishing rod: a modified dorsal fin spine topped with a lure that pulses with bacterial light. Or the ponyfish, which glows along its belly, camouflaging against the down-welling light from above to avoid being seen by predators lurking below.

“Life has evolved in some amazing ways, and I think it will really surprise and intrigue people,” said Godoy. “I love when folks come through and say, ‘I didn’t know that.’”

While the cumulative effect of the exhibit is both enlightening and beautiful, it’s the local touches that makes the exhibit special for visitors.

“Science literacy is very important in this day and age. Every advancement in society has been at the hands of science in some way shape or form,” Wilson said. “As a result, it’s important for our scientific institutions to support each other in providing new and exciting ways to engage the public and motivate them to learn more about this amazing world we live in.”


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