Similarities Between Reindeer Bioluminescence and Insect Bioluminescence
Susanna O. Brown
My objective is to find out if the light emitted from some reindeers’ noses is caused by the same bioluminescence used by insects like glow worms and fireflies.
Is the light source for a luminous reindeer’s (Rangifer Tarandus, sometimes called Caribou) nose similar to the light source in glow worms (Arachnocampa flava) and fireflies (Lampyridae)?
My hypothesis is that light emitting reindeer noses use the same chemical reaction to produce light that glow worms and fireflies use.
Background Information and Research:
Glow worms (not really worms, but larvae of a type of fly) give off light to attract insects so they can catch and eat them. The light is blueish-greenish, and is a product of a chemical reaction between the enzyme luciferase, adenosine triphosphate (ATP, the energy molecule) oxygen, and luciferin (a waste product). See http://www.wettropics.gov.au/pa/pa_fireflies.html.
Fireflies also produce light by the same chemical reaction. See http://iris.biosci.ohio-state.edu/projects/FFiles/frfact.html. The color of firefly light ranges from “intense green to bright yellow.” http://jgp.rupress.org/cgi/reprint/48/1/95.pdf.
Reindeer noses have specialized bones that increase the surface area inside the nostrils. This helps warm incoming cold air with body heat, before the air reaches their lungs. See Wikipedia, Reindeer, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reindeer. This may explain how reindeer get the extra oxygen needed for the chemical reaction between the luciferin, the luciferase, and the adenosine triphosphate.
The Wikipedia Reindeer entry does not mention light emitting reindeer noses, but we know from other sources that they exist. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Robert L. May, 1939. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, (Song), Johnnie Marks, 1949. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, (Television Broadcast), Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc., 1964. These sources all describe a light that is red in color, not blue-green or yellow.
A Google Image search for “light up reindeer noses” returned photographs of clothing, costumes, and holiday decorations, as well as many drawings, but no actual photos of reindeer with light emitting noses. The results proved only that the reindeer with light up noses exist, but did not explain the source of the light. However, a search for “glow worms” and “fireflies” produced thousands of actual photographs, many taken in low light. Other than the glow, it was difficult to tell what was in many of these pictures.
Actions Taken and Procedure:
I visited two zoos because that’s the number my dad would drive me to.
The first, Jungle Louie’s Petting Zoo, doesn’t have any reindeer but I did talk to the Executive Director, Louie Cognomi. Mr. Cognomi was very nice, but did not answer any of my questions. I had several questions prepared about how reindeer noses might combine luciferin, luciferase, and adenosine triphosphate, but midway though the first page, Mr. Cognomi interrupted and said I could hold one of the zoo’s sugar gliders if I wanted. It crawled across my shoulders for a few minutes (which tickles), then my dad said it was time for us to leave. I never got any answers.
The Belcher County Zoo has two caribou (another name for reindeer) on loan from the Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board. Neither have light emitting noses. Their handler, Maggie Cervidae, gave me a tour that included her office. There was something on the wall that my dad said was a master’s degree, but it must not be in reindeer, because she didn’t know anything about light up noses. In fact, if I understood her correctly, she said that reindeer do not have light up noses. I know that isn’t right, because so many sources describe one in detail. See Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: Robert L. May, 1939, Johnnie Marks, 1949, Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc., 1964.
We know that some reindeer noses light up, but Wikipedia does not explain why. Mr. Cognomi never answered any of my questions, and Ms. Cervidae incorrectly said that reindeer don’t have noses that light up. Mom and dad just change the subject when I try to talk about it. I don’t know what is going on, but I feel like I’m getting the runaround, and I intend to get to the bottom of all of this before next year’s science fair.
My hypothesis was that light emitting reindeer noses use the same chemical reaction to produce light that glow worms and fireflies use. My results do not fully support my initial hypothesis. I believe that some of the Google Image results for “glow worms” and “fireflies” are actually poor quality pictures of reindeer with light up noses, particularly the really blurry ones that show what looks like a bright yellow light source. Two color examples are attached to this report as an Appendix. More research is needed to figure out why the light in the photos looks yellow, not red, if the light is produced by the same chemical reaction that glow worms and fireflies use, and why nobody wants to talk to me about it.
I would like to thank my father for driving me to the zoos, my mom for giving me an advance on my allowance so I could have the color photos printed for the Appendix, and my sister, Karen, for loaning me her copy of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.