California is home to an impressive number of bird species, with over 700 recorded throughout the state. From the rocky shores of the Pacific coast to the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada, California’s diverse landscapes provide habitats for a wide range of birdlife. Many of these species are endemic to California, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. The state’s unique geography and climate, as well as its location on the Pacific Flyway migration route, make it a haven for birdwatchers and ornithologists alike.
One of the most common birds in California, probably familiar to anyone whether a backyard enthusiast or committed ornithologist is the house finch. The house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is a small passerine (perching) bird that is native to western North America, including California. This bird is widely known for its vibrant red plumage and melodic song, making it a beloved sight and sound in backyards across the state.
House finches are a member of the finch family, Fringillidae, which includes all true finches. They are thought to have originated from the deserts of Mexico and the southwestern United States. Their range has since expanded to cover much of North America.
House finches are small birds, measuring about 5-6 inches in length and weighing between 0.6-1.0 ounces. They have a stout, conical beak that is adapted for cracking open seeds, their primary source of food. The male house finch is easily recognizable by its bright red head and breast, while the female has a duller brownish-gray coloration. However, in some areas, there are color variations in the males, such as yellow, orange, or even a rose-pink color.
House finches primarily feed on seeds, including those from sunflowers, dandelions, thistles, and various grasses. They are also known to eat some fruits and insects, particularly during the breeding season when protein is essential for the growth of their young. House finches have a unique feeding habit in that they use their tongue to extract seeds from the seed capsules, which they then crush with their beaks.
House finches are monogamous and form pair bonds during the breeding season, which typically starts in late winter and lasts through early summer. The male house finch will sing and perform courtship displays to attract a mate, often presenting the female with a gift of food. Once the pair has formed, they will work together to build a small nest using grass, twigs, and other plant materials.
House finches are a common sight in backyards, parks, and other areas with ample vegetation. They are often seen perched on wires, branches, or feeders, where they will socialize with other birds, including other finches, sparrows, and juncos. House finches are also known for their acrobatic abilities, often clinging to branches and twigs while feeding.
In addition to their acrobatics, house finches are known for their melodic song. Males will sing throughout the day, particularly during the breeding season, to attract mates and establish territories. The song of the house finch is a warbling melody that can be heard from a considerable distance.
In California, house finches are a common sight and have adapted well to urban and suburban environments. They are often attracted to bird feeders, particularly those filled with sunflower seeds, which they can easily crack open with their beaks.
The house finch’s vibrant plumage, melodic song, and acrobatic abilities make it a joy to observe in the wild or in our own backyards. As with many bird species, it is essential that we continue to protect their habitats and ensure that they have access to adequate food sources to thrive.
In 1905, a catastrophic accident occurred in California when a canal system failed and caused the Colorado River to overflow into the Salton Sea basin. The result was the creation of a massive lake that came to be known as the Salton Sea.
The accident occurred as a result of a series of mistakes and oversights in the construction and maintenance of the irrigation system in the area. At the turn of the century, the Imperial Valley in California was a desert wasteland, with no reliable water source for agriculture. To remedy this, engineers devised a plan to divert water from the Colorado River into the area via a series of canals and irrigation channels.
One of these canals, the Imperial Canal, was completed in 1901 and began diverting water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. However, the canal was poorly constructed, and its walls were made of weak and porous materials. Over time, the walls began to erode and collapse, causing water to overflow and flood the surrounding areas.
On the morning of February 20, 1905, disaster struck. The Imperial Canal had been carrying water at full capacity for several weeks, and the walls were weakened by constant erosion. Without warning, the canal walls gave way, and a torrent of water rushed into the desert below.
Over the next several months, the Colorado River poured into the Salton Sea basin, creating a massive lake that covered more than 380 square miles. The water was brackish and contained high levels of salt and other minerals, making it unsuitable for drinking or irrigation.
The creation of the Salton Sea was both a blessing and a curse for the people of the Imperial Valley. On the one hand, the lake provided a new source of water for irrigation, and the fertile soil around its shores proved ideal for growing crops. On the other hand, the water was highly saline, and the lake became increasingly polluted over time, posing a threat to both human health and the environment.
Recently, with most flows diverted from the Salton Sea for irrigation, it has begun to dry up and is now considered a major health hazard, as toxic dust is whipped up by heavy winds in the area. The disappearance of the Salton sea has also been killing off fish species that attract migratory birds.
The New York Times recently wrote about the struggles that farmers face as the Salton Sea disappears, and how the sea itself will likely disappear entirely at some point.
“There’s going to be collateral damage everywhere,” Frank Ruiz, a program director with California Audubon, told the Times. “Less water coming to the farmers, less water coming into the Salton Sea. That’s just the pure math.”
Several historical figures were associated with the Salton Sea disaster. One of the most notable was George Chaffey, an engineer and entrepreneur who played a key role in the development of the Imperial Valley. Chaffey was one of the primary architects of the irrigation system that caused the accident, and his company was responsible for building the Imperial Canal.
Another figure associated with the Salton Sea was Charles Rockwood, a civil engineer who was brought in to help manage the crisis. Rockwood oversaw the construction of emergency levees and channels to help divert water away from populated areas, and his efforts were instrumental in preventing further damage from the flood.
The area around the Salton Sea is located in a geologically active region, with the San Andreas Fault running through the area. The San Andreas Fault is a major plate boundary, where the Pacific Plate is moving north relative to the North American Plate. The fault is responsible for the earthquakes and other tectonic activity in the region. The Salton Sea is also located in an area of active crustal extension and subsidence, which has played a key role in the formation of the lake.
Mono Lake, located in California’s Eastern Sierra region, is one of the most unique lakes in the world due to its extremely high salinity and high levels of arsenic. What’s even more astonishing is the ecosystem of bacteria that inhabit the lake, which have adapted to use arsenic instead of oxygen for photosynthesis.
History and Location
Mono Lake was formed approximately 760,000 years ago as a result of volcanic activity in the area. The lake is situated in the Mono Basin, which is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the Great Basin Desert to the east. Mono Lake is a shallow, saltwater lake with a surface area of 65 square miles and a maximum depth of 159 feet.
The Unique Ecosystem
It is home to a diverse ecosystem of organisms that have adapted to its extreme conditions, including bacteria that can survive and even thrive on arsenic.
Arsenic is a toxic element that is typically found in low concentrations in nature. However, Mono Lake contains high levels of naturally occurring arsenic, making it an ideal environment for bacteria that have evolved to use arsenic as a source of energy.
These bacteria are part of a group called extremophiles, which are organisms that can survive in extreme environments that would be fatal to most other life forms. The bacteria in Mono Lake are specifically known as arsenic-metabolizing bacteria, which means that they are able to convert arsenic into a form that they can use for energy.
The process of arsenic metabolism is complex and involves a number of different enzymes and biochemical pathways. Essentially, the bacteria are able to use arsenic instead of oxygen to produce energy through a process called anaerobic respiration. This means that they are able to survive in environments where oxygen is limited or absent, such as the deep, oxygen-deprived waters of Mono Lake.
The ability of bacteria to metabolize arsenic is unique and has been the subject of much scientific research. It is thought that this ability may have evolved as a result of the high levels of arsenic in Mono Lake, as the bacteria that were able to use this toxic element as a source of energy had a survival advantage over those that could not.
Despite the unusual nature of arsenic metabolism, these bacteria are not the only organisms that have evolved to survive in extreme environments. Extremophiles have been found in a variety of environments, including deep-sea hydrothermal vents, Antarctic ice, and even inside nuclear reactors.
However, the ability of bacteria in Mono Lake to use arsenic as a source of energy is particularly fascinating, as it challenges our understanding of what is possible in terms of biological adaptation. It also raises important questions about the potential for life on other planets or moons, where conditions may be similarly extreme.
Controversy over the Draining of Mono Lake
In the early 20th century, the City of Los Angeles began diverting water from the streams that fed Mono Lake in order to meet the growing demand for water in the city. This led to a significant drop in the lake’s water level, which threatened the unique ecosystem that had developed in the lake.
Environmentalists and local residents formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 to advocate for the protection of the lake. The group filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, arguing that the water diversion was causing irreparable harm to the lake’s ecosystem. The lawsuit was ultimately successful, and in 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board ordered the City of Los Angeles to reduce the amount of water it was diverting from the Mono Basin.
However, the lake continues to face threats from development and other human activities. The protection of Mono Lake remains a critical issue for environmentalists and local residents alike.
Mono Lake’s unique ecosystem of bacteria that use arsenic instead of oxygen for photosynthesis is a remarkable example of how life can adapt to extreme environments. The lake’s history and location, as well as the controversy over the draining of the lake to provide water to Los Angeles, demonstrate the complex relationship between human activities and the natural world.
California is known for its sunny beaches, bustling cities, and iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood sign. However, the state is also home to a wealth of scientific discoveries and phenomena that are not as well-known. From ancient fossils to cutting-edge research, California has a lot to offer in the realm of science. In this list, we’ll explore ten of the most fascinating scientific things that you probably didn’t know about California. Get ready to be amazed by the natural wonders and innovative research that make this state such a unique and exciting place for science enthusiasts.
California is home to the tallest tree in the world, a coastal redwood named Hyperion that measures 379.7 feet (115.7 meters) in height. The state is also home to the largest (by volume) tree, named General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman is 274.9 feet high and has a diameter at its base of 36 feet, giving it a circumference of 113 feet. General Sherman’s estimated volume is around 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), which would correspond to an estimated weight of around 2.7 million pounds.
The Salton Sea, a large inland lake in southern California, is actually an accidental body of water that was created by a flood in 1905 when Colorado River floodwater breached an irrigation canal being constructed in the Imperial Valley and flowed into the Salton Sink.
TheSan Andreas Fault, the state’s best-known and most dangerous fault that runs through the middle of California and to the coast, moves about 2 inches (5 centimeters) per year (or, so they say, the speed that a fingernail grows).
California is one of the only places in the world where you can find naturally occurring asphalt, at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
The oldest living organism on Earth, a bristlecone pine tree named Methuselah, can be found in the White Mountains of California and is over 4,800 years old.
TheMonterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California was the first aquarium to successfully keep a great white shark in captivity for more than 16 days. The first great white that the aquarium tried to display died after 11 days in 1984 because it would not eat.
The Joshua Tree, a type of yucca plant (NOT a tree) found in the Mojave Desert, is named after the biblical figure Joshua because of its outstretched branches that resemble a person reaching up to the sky in prayer.
The California grizzly bear, which appears on the state flag, went extinct in the early 1900s due to hunting and habitat loss. The last California grizzly was seen near Yosemite in 1924, going extinct after decades of hunting. Fossils of the California grizzly can be seen at the La Brea tar Pits.
The California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech, is one of the world’s leading scientific research institutions and has produced 39 Nobel laureates, more than any other university in the world.
A Pacific White-Sided Dolphin swims alongside a boat off Newport Beach, California
For those who are fortunate enough to live near the coast of California, Dolphin sightings are a frequent delight. Dolphins are a diverse group of marine mammals found in all of the world’s oceans, but they are especially abundant in California. The California coast is home to numerous species of dolphins, each with their own unique characteristics and behaviors. An afternoon spent at the beach will very often result in a sighting of these magnificent and majestic animals frolicking in the waves.
For those who may not know, dolphins and porpoises are toothed whales. Both porpoises and dolphins are members of the same scientific order, Cetacea, which includes all whales, including the magnificent blues, grey whales and humpbacks that also ply the California coast.
The exact number of dolphins off the California coast is impossible to know since many species migrate and no authoritative study of their total numbers has ever been published. But one estimate of the dolphin population in Southern California suggests that well over half a million live between the frigid, rocky coastal waters of Monterey and San Diego. Scientists have documented 11 species of dolphins in California’s waters alone. We take a look at a few of those here.
One of the most common, and beautiful, dolphins found off the coast of California is the Pacific White-Sided Dolphin (Lagenorhyncus obliquidens). These dolphins are easily recognized by their distinctive markings, which include a white underbelly and gray and white stripes along the sides. White-Sided Dolphins can reach up to 400 pounds and can grow to 8 feet in length, with males typically being larger than females. They are also known for their energetic and playful behavior, often bow-riding the waves alongside boats and performing wonderful acrobatics in the air. Boaters and whale watchers can witness pods of these animals following their boat for half an hour or more, often swimming on their sides near the surface and gazing up with attentive eyes.
White-sided dolphins feed on a variety of prey, but mostly consume fish and squid. They are skilled hunters and have been known to work together in groups to corral and capture their meals.
Another species found off the California coast is the Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis). These dolphins have a distinctive sleek, hydrodynamic shape, with a dark gray or black dorsal region and a light gray or white underbelly. Common Dolphins are also known for their high level of activity, often seen jumping and playing in the water. Common dolphins can travel 100 miles in a single day.
This species is one of the most well-known and widely distributed marine mammals, and is often associated with playful acrobatics and a high level of intelligence. California is home to several large “super pods” or “megapods” of Common Dolphins that are often seen by boaters or whale-watching tours. As the American Cetacean Society explains, common dolphins typically travel and hunt in large herds of hundreds or even thousands. One resident megapod frequently forages between Ventura and Dana Point.
A Pacific White-Sided Dolphin
Common dolphins have been the subject of numerous studies examining their cognitive abilities. They are known to have complex social relationships and to exhibit behaviors that suggest a high level of problem-solving ability and adaptability. In addition, they are capable of using tools, such as seaweed, to herd fish and protect themselves from predators. They also have excellent memories and are able to recognize individual dolphins and remember past experiences.
The Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) is another species that can be found off the coast of California. This species is easily recognizable due to its large size and beak-like snout. Bottlenose Dolphins are known for their intelligence and playful nature, and are often (unfortunately) used in marine mammal shows and research programs.
Bottlenose dolphins have a complex mating system that involves a variety of behaviors, including courtship displays, vocalizations, and physical contact. Female Bottlenose dolphins give birth to a single calf every three to five years, and the calves are nursed by their mothers for up to a year. Male Bottlenose dolphins compete for access to females, and the strongest and most dominant males are the most successful at mating.
A lesser-known (and seen) species found in the waters of California is the Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus). These dolphins are identified by their tall, curved, sickle-shaped dorsal fin located mid-way down their back. Often they also have distinctive scars and scratches, which are believed to be caused by “teeth raking” between other dolphins. They also frequently have circular markings, likely from encounters with squid or lampreys. Risso’s Dolphins are generally less active than the other species found in the area, and are often seen alone or in small groups.
Finally, the Dall’s Porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) is another species that can be found in the waters off the California coast. These dolphins are identified by their short, stocky bodies and small triangular dorsal fins. Dall’s Porpoises are known for their speed and agility, and are often seen riding the bow waves of boats.
Few places on earth match the coast of California for the sheer number and variety of dolphins that swim in the cool, nutrient-rich waters that well up from the state’s deep canyons. So next time you’re near the coast, keep an eye out for these incredible creatures and enjoy the show!
The drive from Los Angeles north along Highway 395 is one of the great road trips in all of California. The drive offers breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the (much older) White Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. The highway winds its way through a diverse range of geological and historical features, making it an ideal destination for road trippers, history buffs, and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
One of the highway’s more magnificent sights is observable when making a left turn up Whitney Portal Road in Lone Pine. Just a few miles up, you will find the magnificent Alabama Hills, a range of hills located in the Owens Valley near the main entrance to Mount Whitney. The hills are known for their unique geological formations, including massive rounded boulders and natural arches, and their rich history and cultural significance.
The hills are world famous not just for their scenic beauty and appeal to photographers. They have also appeared in more than 700 movie and television productions, including some of the most famous and iconic Westerns ever made. The first film made there was the silent 1920 western “The Round Up,” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Geologically, the Alabama Hills are made up of metamorphic rock, forming an otherworldly landscape and magnificent natural arches. The rounded, oddly shaped contours of the Alabama Hills form a sharp contrast to the glacially carved ridges of the Sierra Nevada. While both landforms consist of the same granitic rock, the fantastic shapes of the hills were formed by a combination of natural chemical weathering and wind erosion. The lighter colored rock, found throughout Alabama Hills in the form of spherical, egg-shape, teardrop, or even as an arch, is biotite monzogranite type of magma.
The higher formations at Mt. Whitney are subjected to radically different weathering conditions than the Alabama Hills (just ~5300 feet of elevation). There are almost 10,000 feet of vertical difference between Mount Whitney’s majestic granite peaks and the rolling boulders of the Alabama Hills.
The hills were (controversially) named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship that operated during the American Civil War. The name was given to the hills by a group of Confederate sympathizers who were prospecting in the area in the 1860s. Several groups have launched campaigns to change the name to erase its connection with Southern slavery.
In addition to their geological and historical importance, the Alabama Hills are also important for their recreational opportunities. The hills offer a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, and photography. The range of hills is also a popular spot for stargazers and astro-photographers, due to the relatively low light pollution in the region.
The Alabama Hills are a must-see destination for anyone interested in geology, history, or outdoor activities in California.
THE Owens Valley, located in eastern California, is renowned globally for its volcanic history. It is considered one of the most active areas in the United States. Part of the valley is made up of the Long Valley Caldera, a 9 by 18-mile oval-shaped volcanic depression that formed about 760,000 years ago during a massive eruption. This eruption released a huge amount of ash and pumice, creating the caldera and shaping the landscape of the area.
Over the next several hundred thousand years, the Long Valley Caldera experienced a series of volcanic eruptions, including the formation of several domes and lava flows. The most recent eruption occurred about 600 years ago, creating the Inyo Craters, a group of small cinder cones located on the western edge of the caldera.
One of the most notable features of the Long Valley Caldera is the presence of a magma chamber beneath the caldera floor. The magma chamber is responsible for the ongoing geothermal activity in the area, including hot springs and geysers, such as the famous Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve.
Volcanism in the region is relatively recent, and it remains extremely active today. Upon entering the town of Mammoth Lakes, there is a small, but steep rise to the East. This area, called the Resurgent Dome (yellow on map), has also uplifted about 80 cm (about 2.5 feet) since 1980.
In addition to its volcanic history, Owens Valley also played an important role in the history of California. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the valley was the site of a major water rights dispute between the city of Los Angeles and local farmers and ranchers. The city ultimately won the dispute, and the water from the Owens River was used to fuel the growth of Los Angeles, leading to the displacement of many local residents.
The area is still monitored for any signs of potential activity, and its geothermal activity continues to shape the landscape. Despite the challenges faced by local residents, the valley’s resources have played a significant role in the development of California.
51 years ago today a man named Edwin Philip Pister rescued an entire species from extinction.
Less than 2.5 inches in length, the Owens pupfish is a silvery-blue fish in the family Cyprinodontidae. Endemic to California’s Owens Valley, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the fish has lived on the planet since the Pleistocene, becoming a new species when its habitat was divided by changing climatic conditions, 60,000 years ago.
For thousands of years, the Owens Valley was largely filled with water, crystal-clear snowmelt that still streams off the jagged, precipitous slab faces of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Pupfish were common, with nine species populating various lakes and streams from Death Valley to an ara just south of Mammoth Lakes. The Paiute people scooped them out of the water and dried them for the winter.
In the late 19th century, Los Angeles was a rapidly growing young metropolis, still in throes of growing pains that would last decades. While considered an ugly younger sibling to the city of San Francisco, Los Angeles had the appeal of near year-round sunshine and sandy beaches whose beauty that rivaled those of the French Riviera.
But by the late 1900s, the city began outgrowing its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, and his water czar, William Mulholland, hatched a plan to build an aqueduct from Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Most Californians know the story. Through a series of shady deals, Mulholland and Eaton managed to get control of the water in the Owens Valley and, in 1913, the aqueduct was finished. It was great news for the new city, but terrible news for many of the creatures (not to mention the farmers) who depended on the water flowing into and from the Owens Lake to survive.
One of those animals is the Owens pupfish.
So named because they exhibit playful, puppy-like behavior, the Owens pupfish rapidly began to disappear. Pupfish are well-known among scientists for being able to live in extreme and isolated situations. They can tolerate high levels of salinity. Some live in water that exceeds 100° Fahrenheit, and they can even tolerate up to 113° degrees for short periods. They are also known to survive in near-freezing temperatures common in the lower desert.
But hot or cold are one thing. The disappearance of water altogether is another.
As California has developed, and as climate change has caused temperatures to rise, thus increasing evaporation, all of California’s pupfish populations have come under stress. Add to these conditions, the early 20th-century introduction by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife of exotic species like largemouth bass and rainbow trout to lakes and streams in the eastern Sierras, and you get a recipe for disaster. And disaster is exactly what happened.
Several species of pupfish in the state have been put on the endangered species list. Several species, including the Owens pupfish, the Death Valley Pupfish and the Devils Hole pupfish are some of the rarest species of fish on the planet. The Devils Hole pupfish recently played the lead role in a recent story about a man who accidentally killed one of the fish during a drunken spree. According to news stories, he stomped on the fish when he tried to swim in a fenced off pool in Death Valley National Park. He went to jail.
The impact on the Owens pupfish habitat was so severe that in 1948, just after it was scientifically described, it was declared extinct.
That is, until one day in 1964, when researchers discovered a remnant population of Owens pupfish in a desert marshland called Fish Slough, a few miles from Bishop, California. Wildlife officials immediately began a rescue mission to save the fish and reintroduce them into what were considered suitable habitats. Many were not, and by the late 1960s, the only remaining population of Owens pupfish, about 800 individuals, barely hung on in a “room-sized” pond near Bishop.
On August 18, 1969, a series of heavy rains caused foliage to grow and clog the inflow of water into the small pool. It happened so quickly, that when scientists learned of the problem, they realized they had just hours to save the fish from extinction.
Among the scientists who came to the rescue that day was a stocky, irascible 40-year old fish biologist named Phil Pister. Pister had worked for the California Department of Fish and Game (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) most of his career. An ardent acolyte of Aldo Leopold, regarded as one of the fathers of American conservation, Pister valued nature on par, or even above, human needs. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1990 obituary, “The prospect of Pister off the leash was fearsome.”
“I was born on January 15, 1929, the same day as Martin Luther King—perhaps this was a good day for rebels,” he once said.
Pister had few friends among his fellow scientists. Known for being argumentative, disagreeable, and wildly passionate about the protection of California’s abundant, but diminishing, natural resources, Pister realized that immediate action was required to prevent the permanent loss of the Owens pupfish. He rallied several of his underlings and rushed to the disappearing pool with buckets, nets, and aerators.
Within a few hours, the small team was able to capture the entire remaining population of Owens pupfish in two buckets, transporting them to a nearby wetland. However, as Pister himself recalls in an article for Natural History Magazine:
“In our haste to rescue the fish, we had unwisely placed the cages in eddies away from the influence of the main current. Reduced water velocity and accompanying low dissolved oxygen were rapidly taking their toll.”
As noted earlier, pupfish are amazingly tolerant of extreme conditions, but like many species, they can also be fragile, and within a short amount of time, many of the pupfish Pister had rescued were dying, floating belly up in the cages. Pister realized immediate action was required, lest the species disappear from the planet forever. Working alone, he managed to net the remaining live fish into the buckets and then carefully carried them by foot across an expanse of marsh. “I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species,” he wrote.
Pister managed to get the fish into cool, moving water where the fish could breathe and move about. He says abouty half the the population survived, but that was enough.
Today, the Owens pupfish remains in serious danger of extinction. On several occasions over the last few decades, the Owens pupfish has suffered losses by largemouth bass that find their way into the pupfish’s refuges, likely due to illegal releases by anglers. In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that five populations totaling somewhere between 1,500 and 20,000 Owens pupfish live in various springs, marshes, and sloughs in the Owens Valley, where they are federally protected.
How and why so many of earth’s creatures make their own light.
Last week, a video went viral showing a small pod of dolphins swimming at night off the coast of Newport Beach. Seeing dolphins off Southern California is not particularly unusual, but this was a very special moment. In the video, the dolphins appear to be swimming through liquid light, their torpedo-shaped bodies generating an ethereal blue glow like a scene straight out of Avatar. The phenomenon that causes the blue glow has been known for centuries, but that in no way detracts from its wonder and beauty. The phenomenon is called bioluminescence, and it is one of nature’s most magical and interesting phenomena.
Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism (thanks, Wikipedia!), and it is truly one of the great magical properties of nature. At its core, bioluminescence is the way animals can visually sense the world around them. It’s all built on vision, one of the most fascinating and useful senses in the animal kingdom. Seeing is impossible without light, and so it makes sense that in the absence of sunlight, some animals created a way to make their own light.
I have been fascinated by bioluminescence since I was a child growing up near Newport Beach when the occasional nearshore red tide bloom would illuminate the waves like we are seeing now. It’s a truly magical experience. I’ve also experienced bioluminescence in various places around the world, including Thailand, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In fact, 13 years ago, I made the trip to Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island and its world-famous Mosquito Bay, for the sole purpose of seeing the bay in person and swimming and kayaking in its warm, glowing waters (there is a rental outfit there that does tours at night…it’s amazing. Trust me.)
The phenomenon of bioluminescence is surprisingly common in nature. Both terrestrial and sea animals do it, as do plants, insects (for example, fireflies), and fungi. Curiously, no mammals bioluminesce. That we know of. The ocean is definitely the place that animals and plants bioluminesce the most. Which makes sense because deep in the ocean, there is little or no light. Light is absorbed very quickly in the water, so while on land you might be able to see a single streetlight miles away, after about 800 feet, light largely disappears in the depths of the ocean. I know. I’ve been there.
It’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of the animals living in the open ocean, in waters below 1,500 feet, make their own light. Why they do this is in part a mystery, but scientists are pretty sure they understand the basic reasons animals do it: to eat, to not be eaten, and to mate. In other words, to survive. And to communicate.
The angler fish dangles a lighted lure in front of its face to attract prey. Some squid expel bioluminescent liquid, rather than ink, to confuse their predators. A few shrimp do too. Worms and small crustaceans use bioluminescence to attract mates. When it is attacked, the Atolla jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) broadcasts a vivid, circular display of bioluminescent light, which scientists believe may be a kind of alarm system. The theory is that the light will attract a larger predator to go after whatever is attacking the jellyfish. While this is still a theory, a 2019 expedition that took the very first images of the giant squid used a fake Atolla jellyfish designed by the scientist Edith Widder to lure the squid into frame. I had the fortune of interviewing Dr. Widder, one of the world’s top experts on bioluminescence, several years ago for the New York Times.
Making light is clearly beneficial. That’s why, say evolutionary biologists, it appears that bioluminescence has arisen over forty separate times in evolutionary history. The process is called convergent evolution and is the same reason that bats and birds and insects all evolved to fly independently. Clearly, flying confers a major advantage. So does making light.
While the Internet is awash in images of bioluminescent creatures, very often the term is confused with fluorescence. Even reputable science organizations sometimes do this. Bioluminescence is not the same thing as fluorescence. Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. Many animals like scorpions and coral fluoresce, meaning that they appear to glow a bright otherworldly color when blue light is shone on them. The key idea here is that the animals are not generating their own light, but rather contain cells that reflect light in fluorescence.
So what about the recent explosion of bioluminescence in Southern California? The light we are seeing is made by tiny organisms, type of plankton called dinoflagellates (Lingulodinium polyedra) that occasionally “bloom” off-shore. Often, this is the result of recent storms that bring tons of nutrient-laden runoff into the ocean. The tiny plankton feed on nitrogen and other nutrients that enter the ocean from rivers and streams and city streets. A lot of the nutrients come from California’s vast farms, specifically the fertilizer used to grow California’s fruits and vegetables. With all that “food” coming into the ocean system, the algae rapidly multiply, creating red tides, or vast patches of ocean that turn dark brownish red, the color of pigment in the algae that helps protect it from sunlight. Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says that the animals use bioluminescence as a predator avoidance behavior.
Sometimes red tides are toxic and can kill animals and make people sick who swim in the ocean. (That does not appear to be the case in California right now). At night, when they are still, the animals can’t be seen. But when the water is disturbed, which adds oxygen into the mix, a chemical reaction takes place in their bodies that causes luciferin to oxidize and becomes catalyzed to make luciferase, which emits photons or particles of light. It’s not understood exactly how or why this happens, but we do know there are many kids of luciferase. In fact, scientists know the genes that create luciferases and have implanted them into organisms like mice, silkworms, and potatoes so that they glow. They’ve made bioluminescent plants, too.
Perhaps the most magical thing about bioluminescence is that it doesn’t create heat. Almost all the lights we are familiar with, particularly incandescent light, like that from generic light bubs, generate a tremendous amount of heat. Of course, we have learned how to make this heatless chemical light ourselves, easily experienced when you crack and shake a glow stick, mixing together several chemicals in a process similar to the one animals in the ocean use to create bioluminescent light. But the light from glow sticks is not nearly strong enough to illuminate your back yard. In the last few decades, we’ve learned how to make another kind of light that does not produce a great amount of heat: LEDs. Though the process is very different, the concept is the same: talking a molecule or a material and promoting it to an excited state. Where electricity is used, in the case of LEDs, it’s called electroluminescence, where it’s a chemical reaction it’s chemiluminescence, of which bioluminescence is one form.
Whether you are a religious person or not (I’m not) it’s no coincidence that one of the first things God said was, “Let there be light!” Light and light energy give us plants and animals to eat, and allows us to see. It heats our world, it fuels our cars (oil is really just dead organic material compressed over time, and that organic material would not have existed without sunlight). While some animals deep in the ocean can live without light, most of us cannot. And it’s a rather astounding feat of nature than when there is no light, many of the earth’s creatures have evolved to produce it themselves. If you don’t believe me, just go down to the Southern California shore tonight, and leave your flashlight at home. You won’t need it.
We also have the world’s tallest and biggest trees.
California’s giant sequoias and redwoods are nature’s skyscrapers. Redwoods exist in a few narrow pockets in Northern and Central California and into Southern Oregon. Sequoias live exclusively in small groves in central and Northern California with the largest grouping of them found in Sequoia National Park. These two tree species are wonders of the biological world. They are also some of the most magnificent things to behold on the planet.
We are lucky to still have our big trees, what’s left of them, anyway. Just a century and a half ago, old-growth redwoods and sequoias were relatively plentiful. People marveled at them, with some early settlers in California spinning unbelievable yarns of trees that rise from the earth “like a great tower“. They also saw them as a bounteous resource, ripe for plunder.
By 1900, nearly all of California’s tall trees had been purchased by private landowners who saw in the trees not beauty, but dollar signs. By 1950, nearly all of the old-growth redwoods and sequoias had been cut down for timber and other purposes. Today, only 5 percent of the old-growth coast redwood forest remains. The largest surviving stands of ancient coast redwoods are found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Redwood National and State Parks and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It’s a wonder and a blessing that there are some left. And even then, they face an uncertain future thanks to climate change.
Sequoias and redwoods are closely related. The primary difference between sequoias and redwoods is their habitat. Redwoods live near the coast, while sequoias live in subalpine regions of California. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Sequoias are the biggest, if measured by circumference and volume. Redwoods can grow over 350 feet (107 m). The tallest tree in the world that we know of is called the Hyperion, and it tickles the sky at 379.7 feet (115.7 m). But it is quite possible another tree out there is taller than Hyperion. Redwoods are growing taller all the time, and many of the tallest trees we know of are in hard to reach areas in Northern California. Hyperion was only discovered about a decade ago, on August 25, 2006, by naturalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. The exact location of Hyperion is a secret to protect the tree from damage.
The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is Earth’s most massive living organism. While they do not grow as tall as redwoods – the average size of old-growth sequoias is from 125-275 feet – they can be much larger, with diameters of 20–26 feet. Applying some basic Euclidean geometry (remember C = πd?), that means that the average giant sequoia has a circumference of over 85 feet.
Sequoias grow naturally along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an altitude of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. They tend to grow further inland where the dry mountain air and elevation provide a comfortable environment for their cones to open and release seeds. They consume vast amounts of runoff from Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides groves with thousands of gallons of water every day. But some say the majestic trees face an uncertain future. Many scientists are deeply concerned about how climate change might affect the grand trees, as drought conditions potentially deprive them of water to survive.
The world’s largest sequoia, thus the world’s largest tree, is General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman is 274.9 feet high and has a diameter at its base of 36 feet, giving it a circumference of 113 feet. Scientists estimate that General Sherman weighs some 642 tons, about as much as 107 elephants. The tree is thought to be 2,300 to 2,700 years old, making it one of the oldest living things on the planet. (To learn more about the oldest thing in the world, also in California, see our recent feature on Bristlecone pines.) Interesting fact: in 1978, a branch broke off General Sherman that was 150 feet long and nearly seven feet thick. Alone it would have been one of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi.
Many sequoias exist on private land. Just last month, one of the largest remaining private stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million. The money came from 8,500 contributions from individual donors around the world. The property includes both the Stagg Tree mentioned above and the Waterfall Tree, another gargantuan specimen. The grove is considered “the Crown Jewel” of remaining giant Sequoia forests.
Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), also known as coast redwoods, generally live about 500 to 700 years, although some have been documented at more than 2,000 years old. While wood from sequoias was found to be too brittle for most kinds of construction, the redwoods were a godsend for settlers and developers who desperately needed raw material to build homes and city buildings, to lay railroads, and erect bridge trestles. The timber companies who profited from redwoods only began to cut them down in earnest a bit over a century ago. But cut them down they did, with vigor and little regard for the preservation of such an amazing organism. After World War II, California experienced an unprecedented building boom, and the demand for redwood (and Douglas fir) soared. Coastal sawmills more than tripled between 1945 and 1948. By the end of the 1950s, only about 10 percent of the original two-million-acre redwood range remained untouched.
So how did these trees get so big and tall? We don’t know for sure, but some scientists believe it has to do with the climate in which they grow. Sequoias benefit from Californa’s often prodigious snowpack, which seeps into the ground, constantly providing water to the roots of the trees. Redwoods get much of their water from the air, when dense fog rolls in from the coast and is held firm by the redwoods themselves and the steep terrain. The trees’ leaves actually consume water in fog, particularly in their uppermost shoots. According to scientists who study the trees using elaborate climbing mechanisms to reach the treetops, in summer, coast redwoods can get more than half of their moisture from fog. (In fact, fog plays a central role in sustaining several of California’s coastal ecosystems.) The reason is that fog is surprisingly dense with water. One study from scientists Daniel Fernandez of California State University, Monterey Bay, showed that a one-square-meter fog collector could harvest some 39 liters, or nearly 10 gallons, of water from fog in a single day.
Another answer to the redwood’s size may lie in the tree’s unusual, enormous genome. The ongoing Redwood Genome Project has revealed that the tree’s genome is ten times the size of the human genome (27 base pairs compared to three billion in humans), with six copies of its chromosomes (both humans and giant sequoias only have two copies) existing in a cell. It’s possible that by better understanding the redwood genome, we may uncover the precise genetic mechanism that explains how these trees have gotten so big and tall.
Yet another factor may be the trees remarkable longevity. They are survivors. The Sierra Nevadas have long experienced dramatic swings in climate, and this may be yet another of those swings that the trees will simply endure. Or maybe not. For most of the time that redwoods and sequoias have existed, they have done a remarkable job fighting off fires, swings in climate, as well as disease and bug infestations. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay-causing fungi don’t like them.
The thirst for fog and proximity to water sources could be the trees undoing, however. Although they have managed to survive for hundreds if not thousands of years, climate change could well be the one new variable that changes everything for the trees.
As the air heats up due to global warming, there is a rising threat to the trees’ survival. Warm air pulls moisture from leaves, and the trees often close their pores, or stomata, to maintain their water supply. When the pores close, that prevents carbon dioxide from nourishing the tree, halting photosynthesis. The climate in areas where the trees grow hasn’t yet experienced the kind of temperatures that might kill them, but we are really just at the beginning of this current era of global warming, and some scientists warn hotter temperatures could doom many trees.
That said, other studies that show the increased carbon that causes warming could actually be good for the trees. According to an ongoing study from Redwoods Climate Change Initiative, California’s coast redwood trees are now growing faster than ever. As most people know, trees consume carbon dioxide from the air, so, the scientists argue, more carbon means more growth.
We will see. The good news is that to date, no drought-induced mortality has been observed in mature coastal redwoods or giant sequoias.
It all comes down to some kind of balance. Trees may benefit from more carbon, but if it gets too hot, trees could start to perish. That’s a bit of a conundrum, to say the least.
The prospect of losing these magnificent trees to climate change is a double whammy. Not only would a mass die-off of trees be terrible for tourism and those who simply love and study them, but trees are some of the best bulwarks we have on the planet to fight climate change. Redwoods are among the fastest-growing trees on earth; they can grow three to ten feet per year. In fact, a redwood achieves most of its vertical growth within the first 100 years of its life. Among trees that do the best job taking carbon out of the atmosphere, you could hardly do better than redwoods and sequoias.
Numerous groups are actively trying to plant more redwoods around the world in the hope that they might become a sink for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Indeed, there is some evidence that planting vast tracks of trees globally could have a major impact on climate change.
The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, an organization out of Copemish, Michigan, has been “cloning” California’s big trees for nearly a decade. They take snippets of the trees from the top canopy and replant them, essentially creating genetically identical copies of the original tree. It’s more like propagating than cloning, but that’s what they call it. The group’s founder, David Milarch, believes fervently that planting large trees is our best bet in stopping climate change. This is the video story I produced about Milarch back in 2013. It’s worth a watch. He’s an interesting character with a lot of passion.
Preserving and protecting what’s left of these amazing organisms should be a priority in California. These trees are not only part of the state’s rich natural legacy, but they offer ample opportunities for tourism and strengthening the economies of the regions where they grow. It’s hard to visit Redwood National and State Parks or Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and to come away with anything but awe at these magnificent organisms. California is special, and we are blessed to have these trees and the places where they grow in our state.