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More mammals found to be hiding their secret glow

By Cara Giaimo © The New York Times Co.

Were platypuses just the beginning? In October, researchers reported that the perplexing animals fluoresce a psychedelic blue-green color under black light. The species joined a short list of mammals known to do this, including opossums and flying squirrels. Since the study came out, others have begun their own investigations, mostly in Australian mammals. Although results are preliminary, the findings suggest we may have to book a larger venue for the mammal rave.

When he heard about the platypus discovery, Kenny Travouillon, curator of mammals at the Western Australian Museum, borrowed a black light lamp from the arachnology department. (They normally use the lamps to find scorpions, which also fluoresce.) After confirming that their preserved platypuses glowed, he and his colleagues moved on to the rest of the collection. “We just went around for a bit of fun,” he said. “Putting the torch on all of them and let’s have a look.”

But what they saw was encouraging. Bilbies — endangered marsupials with long snouts and rabbit- like ears — had orange and green accents. The quills of hedgehogs, porcupines and echidnas shone bright white.

Some specimens were more reserved: Of two wombat species they examined, only one fluoresced, and “kangaroos didn’t seem to do very much at all,” Travouillon said. The museum plans to team up with a nearby university to do a more systematic study, with better equipment, early next year. Live animals also are being tested.

When a co-worker told Jake Schoen, a conservation technician at the Toledo Zoo the platypus news, “we got pretty excited about it,” he said. He had modified a camera to photograph fluorescence for another project. After checking out the zoo museum’s own preserved platypus specimen, Schoen next turned his lens on the Tasmanian devils, Spiderman and Bubbles.

“The tricky part was having them sit still for a fraction of a second,” he said. Eventually, Bubbles cooperated. When the UV flash went off, voilá: A cool blue glow emerged around her eyes, at the bases of her whiskers, and inside the cups of her ears. Others say it’s easy to read too much into these findings.

While looking at photos of animals with Day-Glo fur or skin gives the impression that perhaps they appear this way to one another, that’s very unlikely, said Michael Bok, a visual systems biologist at Lund University in Sweden who was not involved in any of this research. “It would be incredibly surprising,” he said, if these animals “could make out these fluorescent patterns in any sort of natural lighting environment.” He compares it to human fingernails and teeth — biological materials that also fluoresce, to little fanfare or avail.

 

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