Speed Reads

weird science

Researchers discover the platypus isn't the only mammal that glows fluorescent

After researchers reported in October that the platypus, along with its other unique characteristics, glowed a psychedelic blue-green under black light, "others have begun their own investigations, mostly in Australian mammals," The New York Times reports. "Although results are preliminary, the findings suggest we may have to book a larger venue for the mammal rave."

At the Western Australian Museum, curator of mammals Kenny Travouillon borrowed a black light from the scorpion department and started looking for biofluorescence in their preserved mammal specimens. He found orange and green accents in endangered marsupials called bilbies, bright white glowing in the quills of hedgehogs and porcupines, and signs of fluorescence in one of two species of wombat. "Kangaroos didn't seem to do very much at all," he added.

Jake Schoen, a conservation technician at the Toledo Zoo, tested the zoo's preserved platypus specimen then used a specially modified camera to photograph live Tasmanian devils. "The tricky part was having them sit still for a fraction of a second," he said, but when he did manage that with one of the animals, he captured a blue glow around her eyes, ears, and whiskers. "Presumably all of its skin is fluorescent," Schoen said.

Though the discovery of biofluorescence in a wider variety of mammals than previously known is exciting — opossums and flying squirrels also glow under black light — researchers don't yet know if this quality has any significance for the animals themselves. "It would be incredibly surprising" if these animals "could make out these fluorescent patterns in any sort of natural lighting environment," Michael Bak at Sweden's Lund University told the Times. He noted that human fingernails and teeth also fluoresce, for some reason.

Schoen said he and his colleagues hope to eventually "tease out whether or not this is actually an ecologically adaptive trait," and fluorescence "may just be a coincidence." But, he added, "it's certainly a lot of fun." Read more about the new class of biofluorescent mammals at The New York Times.