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Bioluminescence: lighting up the natural world
The forest floor is barely visible in the low light conditions when it suddenly bursts into life, becoming a neon green blanket of light.
The source of this eerie light is a bioluminescent fungus, known only by the name given to it by locals: “chimpanzee fire”.
Filmmaker Verity White was able to catch this phenomenon on camera for the Congo episode of the BBC/Discovery series Africa using long-exposure time-lapse photography techniques.
This bizarre species was filmed in the Goualougo triangle, near the Dzanga river in Congo Brazzaville.
The existence of the fungus was so little-known that even experienced field scientists had never seen it.
It was only when Ms White asked local guides if they had ever heard of the glowing fungus that its whereabouts came to light.
“On the off-chance of seeing it, I took a time-lapse camera with me,” Ms White tells BBC Nature.
“The scientist I was working with said he’d never seen it, so I thought I’d ask the local Bayaka trackers. The trackers said ‘Yes, of course – it’s everywhere’.”
“It was only ever a long shot – but it worked out.”
After the discovery in the Congo the filming continued in laboratory conditions to capture the microscopic details of how the fungus grows.
Shedding some light
Ms White’s scenes of the fungus in its forest environment produced a visually compelling piece of footage, but what also emerges from the chance filming is how little is known about such an astonishing natural phenomenon.
Nobody knows what genus the ‘chimpanzee fire’ fungus belongs to, let alone the species.
Why it grows on the forest floor in the Goualougo triangle is also a mystery, although theories have been put forward, such as attracting invertebrates that in turn spread the fungus’ spores.
Bioluminescence is the process in living organisms where the energy from a chemical reaction is released as light. It is the enzyme luciferase that catalyses the reaction of oxygen with the light-emitting chemical luciferin
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