They’re here! The live specimens for our upcoming exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence (which will open on May 3) have arrived. Among these curiosities is a shipment of live Splitfin Flashlightfish (Anomalops katoptron).

A fish in an aquarium.
Splitfin Flashlightfish (Anomalops katoptron). Image: © FMNH\L. Smith and AMNH\J. Sparks

Flashlight fish are unique. They are a small, salt-water fish that—you guessed it—produce their own light source. Located just under their eyes are bioluminescent organs (the size of a small jelly bean) that contain symbiotic bacteria that glow in the dark of their native habitat, the dark ocean.

An aquarium without water.
An early stage in preparing the aquarium for its future occupants. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature
Two clown fish in an aquarium.
Clown fish. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

To begin welcoming the new specimens, we set up a 380 litre (100 gallon) salt-water tank several weeks in advance. We added “living” rocks (pieces of coral on which micro marine organisms live), snails and a couple of clown fish to help speed up the growth of “good” bacteria and algae.

Once we put in an order for the flashlight fish, it was a long wait. Flashlight fish are collected only during a new moon, off the coast of Japan, when large numbers congregate closer to the surface. Being strategic about the timing increased the chances of collecting the 30-some specimens we needed.

Once collected, the fish were sent by plane to Los Angeles, California, where they were kept in tanks for a few days to acclimatize, and they could be monitored for signs of stress or illness. The specimens were then placed in individual plastic black-out bags (to keep them in darkness) filled with fresh salt water. From there, they travelled by plane to the Ottawa International Airport.

Boxes on a platform dolly.
Boxes of our newly arrived live fish specimens. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

Flashlight fish are extremely sensitive to light. Any exposure can stress the fish, which can cause the bioluminescent bacteria to stop glowing and die off. We must keep the tank and storage room as dark as possible to prevent problems, and use a black light (ultraviolet light) when we need to get around.

A man holds a bag of fish in water.
Live Specimen Technician Stuart Baatnes examines a bag of flashlight fish illuminated by black (ultraviolet) light. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature

Upon their arrival to the museum, we eagerly opened the boxes to find that all 30 specimens were alive and healthy. To acclimatize to their new home, the fish were left in their bags, and the bags floated in the aquarium water for 10 minutes. Then, we slowly added aquarium water into the bags for the next 10 minutes. At that point the fish were ready to explore the tank on their own.

The flashlight fish have settled happily into their new home, eagerly eating brine shrimp (and other small tasty treats) as many as four times a day.

Museum visitors will soon be able to see our flashlight fish starting on May 3 in Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence. Other glowing live specimens, including bioluminescent scorpions, mushrooms, coral and more, can be found in our Glow Moment booths around the museum!

Watch Splitfin Flashlightfish swoop and dive as we feed them in darkness. Video: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature