Incredible 'Sea Sapphire' Ocean Creature Flashes With Color And Then Disappears [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on March 4, 2014 6:44 PM EST

Different sea sapphire species light up in various colors, like blue and gold. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

The "sea sapphire" is a weird, beautiful little creature. Although the copepod it sits at the bottom of the ocean's food chain, the millimeter-long creature can perform a neat little "trick": one minute it's practically invisible, the next it shines with brilliant color. The different species of Sapphirina copepod shine different colors, like blue or gold, and have been seen in the waters of the United States, Africa and elsewhere.

Over at The Conversation, Rebecca Helm describes the first time she saw the elusive creature while catching plankton off the coast of Durban, South Africa. "As I looked through one jar, the boat rocking up and down, I saw a bright blue flash. It lasted for an instant and then it was gone. Then I saw another one in a different place. It was an incredible shade of blue. Maybe I had been in the sun too long? Maybe I was seeing things? It wasn't until I got back to the lab that I discovered the true beauty and mystery of these radiant flashes."

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The male sea sapphire performs this neat little trick, and Helm speculates it might be a mating ritual. But how do they do light up in the first place? Helm says that the sea sapphire's cells contain microscopic crystal layers; in the case of blue sea sapphires, these layers are separated by just four-ten-thousandths of a millimeter, a distance roughly the wavelength of blue light. As Helm explains: "When blue light bounces off these crystal layers, it is perfectly preserved and reflected. But for other colors of light, these small differences in distance interfere, causing the colors to cancel out. So while white light is composed of all colors, only blue light is reflected back."

Naturalists and scientists alike have marveled at the shining sea sapphires for many years. Japanese fishermen have long called the sea sapphire phenomenon "tamamizu", or jeweled water. In 1924, explorer and author William Beebe described coming across the magical creatures in his account of the Galapagos Islands, "Galapagos, World's End."

"The next morning while looking over the rail I was astonished to see a number of small, rounded specks, of the most delicate, turquoise blue, phosphorescent light in the water, drifting slowly past," Beebe wrote. "I got out in a boat and after several attempts I caught one. The moment it was disturbed it sank and the light vanished. I saw nothing in my net, but rinsed it carefully into a small aquarium. After all had quieted down, the pale blue glow again came and in bright sunlight glowed with all the energy of phosphorescence. It was the copepod Sapphirina...beautiful drifting globes of most marvelous shades of blue." Beebe even knew that it was only the males who were the colorful ones, writing that "the males show all sorts of strange decorations--brilliant colors, and elaborate plumes radiating from the various appendages."

Beebe describes the creature with some pretty language, but check out the video below to see if he does the sea sapphire justice.


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