Saturday, December 16, 2017

Magic Mushrooms and Red Noses: Holiday Bioluminescence

rudolphAs a kid I was enthralled by TV nonfiction shows. Nova and Frontline had great stuff, but my favorites were Christmas documentaries like Frosty the Snowman. Over the years I’ve been disappointed that no further work seems to have been done on the many questions left hanging by the original researchers.

Take the whole glowing-nose thing. First documented back in 1939 by Robert L. May in his book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the story surrounding the phenomenon is well-known. Since no one has come up with a scientific explanation, I have decided to tackle the issue. Bioluminescence is a natural process wherein fungi, microbes, insects or marine animals emit light as a result of chemical reactions which they control, and there are a number of ways a reindeer may have naturally developed a lighted nose.

Luminous life-forms, not to be confused with luminary life-forms such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, generally fall into two camps: those that make their own light, and those that hijack it from others. Anglerfish are an example of the latter. To attract prey, they convince a pile of bioluminescent bacteria to live on the end of the fishing-pole-thing (ecsa) that sprouts from anglerfish heads, and to light up on command. No one seems clear on how this works, but to be fair it’s tough to study anything that deep.

Most deep-sea living light bulbs are only available in blue-green. That color has a shorter, more industrious wavelength as compared to red, which is too lazy to make it all the way from the sunny surface. Because the ocean bottom is a red-free zone, most deep-sea animals have lost the ability to see red. But a few predators, e.g. the northern stoplight loosejaw (true story), have figured out how to both detect and produce red light. When it flips the switch, it can see any prey within the red-light district created by its bio-light, but the prey notice nothing; it’s like having night-vision glasses.

I could imagine a scenario where Santa lands on a beach to adjust the freight or defrost his iPad, and Rudolph gets infected by the bacteria from one of these red-stoplight fish that had washed ashore. It’s entirely plausible.

Up on dry land, the best-known bioluminescent organism may be the firefly. Either that or Tinkerbell, who still sparks fights among taxonomists as to what category she belongs (I’m guessing a mutant damselfly). Fireflies are honest about making their own light without enslaving microbes, but dishonest in the way they use it to signal mates. We can’t tell if they lie about their age, but some fireflies have learned the signal codes used by rival species. They pretend to advertise for mates of that species, and then eat anyone who shows up for a date, regardless of whether it brings flowers.

I’m sure Santa has to wipe a few smeared fireflies off his windshield on some part of his trip, but I doubt Rudolph’s glow came from a firefly encounter.

Certain fungi also shine under their own power. Depending which authority you use, there are either 71, 76, or 80 bioluminescent fungi species on the planet. We have 17 in North America, though our magic mushrooms are dimmer than those in Australia. Not only do the mushrooms, or fruiting structures, light up, the fungal mycelium or main body inside the wood it’s consuming also glow. I first noticed glow-in- the-dark fungi while camping. As I split some punky firewood at night (not exactly a bright idea), I was surprised to see a green glow inside each chunk of wood.

As yet there is no agreement on why fungi glow. It could be to attract insects to spread spores, or to repel fungi-eating insects by attracting predator insects. Or it is just a chemical byproduct of digesting lignin, which is to wood what steel reinforcing bars are to concrete, imparting strength and resiliency.

Very few fungi can break down lignin, and the ones which do are the same ones that light up. Fireflies and fungi both make light by mixing two chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, which admittedly sounds a bit ominous. I don’t want to suggest Rudolph made a deal with luciferin and luciferase, but if he ate some high-wattage glowing mushrooms in Australia, something might have rubbed off on him.

I hate to think that Santa’s workshop ever involved gene transfer, but it would be remiss to gloss over transgenic animals. As far as I know, genetically modified critters were developed in the early 1980s, with glowing animals first appearing around 2002. Certainly it would be possible today to insert jellyfish genes into a reindeer nose, but probably not back in 1939. Plus, I think Santa would understand the importance of steering clear of anything that could be misunderstood by kids. No doubt Mrs. Claus would have had a word with him about it.

I contend Rudolph was either exposed to deep-sea red-emitting bacteria, or he got his nose into some bright mushrooms Down Under, and I expect follow-on research to come to light shortly. The next order of business, obviously, is to explain flying reindeer, which may also involve mushrooms. If I didn’t have to further study a documentary entitled A Christmas Carol, I would get right on it.

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Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.

You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

5 Responses

  1. John Blutarsky says:

    The magic mushrooms I’m familiar with might cause you to see reindeer in the sky.

  2. Randy Fredlund says:

    Excellent research! Please continue with additional investigations into endo-chimney travel, and time distortion necessary for reaching the abodes of all the children in the world in one night.

  3. Ray says:

    The legend of Santa Claus comes to us from Siberian brought hallucinogenic amanita mushrooms down through the smoke hole in Siberian version of a kiva and handed them out. Because the mushrooms are red and white the shaman dressed in red and white.

  4. Charlie S says:

    Magic mushrooms. I remember them days! Consciousness-expanding days. Hot summer days of stepping into farmer’s fields after a rain,steam coming off of cow chips. Days of Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan and little floating orbs of light or a baby’s arm holding an apple. ‘Dark side of the moon’ or ‘Brain salad surgery’ days. Ram Dass & Timothy Leary days…..days of dropping out and tuning-in!

  5. Charlie S says:

    “Luminous life-forms… those that make their own light, and those that hijack it from others. ”

    There’s so much we don’t know! So many unexplained mysteries. In my newspaper research I found this piece not long ago. It is reference to the death of a Richard Elliot. It’s heading is ‘Singular death!’ and it (his death that is) took shape in Boardman, Ohio on February 22,1814:
    “The circumstances of his death are indeed truly extraordinary; they are thus stated in a letter from Comfort S. Mygatt, Esq. to the keeper of the Post Office in Danbury, (Con.) dated Canfield, Ohio, Feb. 15,1814. On Sabbath evening, about 9 o’ clock, returning from Poland, he (the deceased) observed two lights coming towards him, in the shape of half moons. When the lights met him they seemed to enclose him in a circle around his breast; when a voice pronounced these words distinctly, ‘Are you prepared to die?’ He answered, “If it was God’s will he thought he was.” The lights then passed him a short distance; but, turning back, they followed him until he arrived against the burying ground; where they made a stand, and he could observe them by looking back for half a mile. He mentioned these circumstances to his wife on arriving home, and assured her, he should live but a few days.. Next morning he told his son, about nineteen years old, he must go and do some business at Mahoning, which he (the father) expected to have done; for he should live but a few days. On Monday morning he went to his store at the centre of Boardman, and there informed Mrs. Charles Boardman, and others, of these circumstances, as I have related them. When he shut his store in the afternoon, he said he should never open it again. On Thursday he sent for my neighbor Dr. Bostwick, and stated to him what he had seen, and his full belief of his approaching dissolution, and manifested a resignation to the will of Providence. After that day, he was somewhat deranged by turns, until the scene with him was closed. This is a simple statement of the circumstances of his sickness and death.”

    By the description above these balls of light over 200 years ago emitted their own light. I have met people who have shared with me firsthand accounts of balls of light being seen by relatives or someone they knew who were close to death on hospital beds or in their homes. My cousin told me her mom told her she saw balls of light in her room not long before she died. It is good to keep an open mind!

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