“Even common pigeons appear stunning: experience the vibrant beauty of a biofluorescent nature excursion.”
It is a dark and dreary evening in the rural countryside. In the distance, a tawny owl can be heard calling. I am filled with delight as I gently stroke a slug. Suddenly, Jeremy Buxton, a farmer, exclaims from the darkness nearby: “Oh my, an earthworm! How marvelous.”
As I make contact with the brown slug, it emits a bright fluorescent yellow slime. Similarly, the earthworm displays a pair of turquoise tracks on its belly. Though it may resemble an experiment involving psychedelic mushrooms, it is actually a unique method for exploring the night world. By using ultraviolet lights, the natural biofluorescence of animals, plants, and fungi is revealed.
According to David Atthowe, a passionate nature enthusiast and hiker, humans are one of the few animal species that are unable to see biofluorescence. He has recently begun leading guided walks at night using UV torches, and believes that biofluorescence is a means of communication that we are simply unaware of.
We are embarking on a nature walk through the biodiversity-friendly fields of Buxton’s farm in Booton village, Norfolk. It is an eye-opening experience.
Unlike bioluminescence, which is when an organism generates its own visible light via a chemical reaction, biofluorescence is the absorption of light by living organisms who then emit it as bright blues, greens, reds and yellows. Ultraviolet light has wavelengths shorter than those detectable by the human eye but UV torches bring it into our vision.
Scientists are currently exploring the phenomenon of biofluorescent communication in the natural world. While this has been observed in marine creatures such as sharks for some time, it has only recently been discovered that many mammals also possess this ability. In fact, a study conducted by Australian researchers found that 86% of the 125 mammals studied had fur that emitted a glowing pink hue under UV light, including North American flying squirrels.
Budgies whose cheeks and crown were covered with sunscreen to protect from UV light were found to be less appealing to potential mates compared to those who could exhibit their natural biofluorescence.
Atthowe discovered the phenomenon when he chanced upon a Ted Talk online. Since becoming fascinated by it, he has imported UV torches from China and tested them in habitats across Britain, including in temperate rainforests. This summer he launched night walks for small groups around East Anglia.
Atthowe describes it as an amazing voyage of exploration. This year, my top two findings are hedgehogs and moles. It is rare for black creatures to glow, but I came across a deceased mole with blue fur. It was thrilling to also discover that Sonic the hedgehog truly exists! It turns out that hedgehogs can also turn blue. How exhilarating!
We start our journey in the meadows of Buxton, where the lichen that appears yellow-grey during the day transforms into a vibrant orange hue. The algae on fence posts, which goes unnoticed in daylight, now stands out in a vivid red color. Woodlice scurrying along a branch emit a luminous blue light. Even the grass seeds seem to radiate a bright aquamarine color.
We gaze inside a vacant tree trunk. “The last time I peered in, there was a tiny mouse that was orange,” Buxton recalls. “Such a surreal experience.”
Harvestmen spiders display a combination of bright blue and yellow colors. Atthowe has observed that these spiders start off as vivid purple when they are young, but transition to a yellowish white hue as they grow older.
The most unexpected finding is the difference in nettles’ appearance: those exposed to sunlight maintain their green color, while those in shaded areas display vibrant red leaves.
Buxton, with their keen observation skills akin to those of a rural resident, notices a moth on the bark of an oak tree. In regular white light, the moth appears to be greyish-brown, but under UV light, it displays a shimmering hue of purple and pink. Scientists who study butterflies have recently learned that certain chrysalises, which are expertly disguised in natural lighting, emit a bright glow when exposed to UV light. This makes it simpler to track and monitor species like the purple emperor for scientific purposes.
Tonight’s highlight is the mushrooms. In the area near the trees, russulas can be spotted with a vibrant yellow color. A type of bracket fungus, commonly referred to as artist’s conk, has a brown top and a creamy bottom during the day. However, under our UV torches, it appears in a striking blue shade with a red cap.
The use of UV light exposes the wide presence of man-made fabrics, even in rural areas. Tiny strands become illuminated in a bright blue hue and what initially seems like a stunning lemon-colored caterpillar in a bush is actually a misplaced scrunchie.
The night offers a peaceful atmosphere. According to Josh Bright, a lone walker, “You’re shrinking, you’re moving at a slower pace, and you’re on a different level.”
Buxton utilizes biofluorescent walks as a means of connecting his local community with nature and his farm. He believes that farms should serve as centers for communities and education. By getting people outside and involving them with nature, he hopes to inspire a new perspective on the natural world. Buxton finds it gratifying when someone exclaims in awe at the sights they encounter during the walks, as it introduces them to a whole new way of appreciating nature.
Atthowe, who has led biofluorescent walks beside coastal rockpools and on the Norfolk Broads, says each season brings new delights – fungi in autumn, lichens in winter and new flowers and caterpillars in spring.
At the start, he believed that the 90-minute evening strolls should be limited to those 16 years and older. However, he received an overwhelming number of inquiries from families, prompting him to make them available to individuals aged eight and up.
Atthowe expresses admiration for the boundless energy of children and their ability to bring joy. They believe that anyone can participate in this magic, regardless of skill level, as even simple things like nettles, alexanders flowers, and pigeons can appear extraordinary when viewed under UV light.