These Dazzling Species Are Nature's Greatest Christmas Baubles

These dazzling species give tinsel a run for its money. Thwaitesia spp. shared with permission from Robert Whyte.

T’is the season for all things sparkly, and while we opt for adorning our Christmas trees with glass baubles and twinkly lights the natural world is teeming with festive bauble candidates. From deep-sea comb jellies to mirror spiders, here are some of nature’s greatest Christmas tree baubles for the foraging decorator. (NB: please don’t try to actually decorate your tree with nature. Looking for lights in the bathyal zone will end unfavorably for you.)

Mirror Spiders

When natural selection made mirror spiders, the glittery apple fell a long way from the tree as these magnificently colorful critters appear nothing like the brown, grey, and black spiders most commonly found in homes. The mirror species native to Australia, Thwaitesia, T. argentiopunctata, and T. nigronodosa, were first described by British entomologist William Joseph Rainbow. It’s fitting then that Rainbow should be responsible for officially identifying some of the most technicolor arachnids in the world, as seen above.

Their silver abdomens are the result of deposits of guanine, which are byproducts of their digestion. Their gut expels the guanine on its surface creating a reflective surface that works well as a form of camouflage as it blends in with sparkling raindrops in tropical forests.

The deep-sea hydrozoan Gonionemus vertens by Alexander Semenov

DEEP-SEA LIGHT SHOWS

The deeper you venture into the ocean the stranger the wildlife becomes, and as natural light flickers to darkness you find all manner of alien-like creatures putting on a show to a rather limited audience. The hydrozoans are one such group, belonging to the cnidaria that includes jellyfish, their closest relative. Hydrozoans are made up of a colony of animals that share the same genetic material and are capable of asexual reproduction. Within the hydrozoans are some of the most bizarre and impressive deep-sea alternatives to festive lights, with Gonionemus vertens making the perfect tree topper with its glittering lights and star-like filaments. 

Despite their name, slime molds are pretty sexy. Elaeomyxa cerifera by Sarah Lloyd

Sparkling slime molds

Slime mold is an overarching name to describe a group of unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can function as a group or live freely as single cells. When they aggregate, they can form into enormous organisms on land, in water, or attached to tree trunks. The beautiful sparkling disco balls pictured are a type of slime mold, Elaeomyxa cerifera. Sometimes mistaken for amethyst mushrooms, this slime mold is actually no longer considered a member of the fungi family having formerly been categorized within this group. With its sparkly surface and bauble-appropriate shape, there are certainly worse things to find growing on your Christmas tree.

Glittering Elvis marine worms

What do you get when you combine a pine cone and sparkles? These iridescent deep-sea worms must surely be a strong contender. Four new members were identified in 2020, also known as scaleworms. Found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean around hydrothermal vents, these shimmering critters have earned themselves the nickname "Elvis worms" because their glittery outfits look like the sequins on the King's famous jumpsuits. 

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