Imagine you’re walking in the Russian Arctic. Companion and two dogs in tow, you scan the landscape only to spot a rather festive display of glowing blue lights in the snow. Confused? So was Mikhail Neretin, son of a molecular biologist, who witnessed exactly that while walking near a remote field station along the White Sea coast.
While anyone who’s seen The Thing might well run away from the mysterious Arctic lifeform(s), Neretin’s companion (Russian biologist Vera Emelianenko) decided the phenomenon was worthy of investigation. After crushing a ball of snow and noting how its glow increased with the pressure, they decided such an aesthetic display needed to be caught on camera.
They gathered photographer Alexander Semenov to document the bizarre bioluminescent snow, which could be triggered by their footsteps and even those of the dogs they were walking with. Semenov posted the photos on Facebook, where they've sparked huge interest in the pretty but unusual phenomenon.
Curious as to what was making the snow glow, Emelianenko observed a sample as it defrosted under the microscope and discovered that inside were some aquatic organisms called copepods. These tiny crustaceans can be found in fresh and saltwater habitats and are referred to by some as the “wildebeest of the ocean” for their magnificent contribution to oceanic food chains.
Looking upon the melting ball of snow, Emeliankenko did what scientists do best and prodded her slide’s inhabitants with a needle. The intrusion triggered the copepods, which began to glow, demonstrating that they were the source of the glowing snow’s illuminating blue hue.
That some copepod species glow is nothing new, but their light installation art is more commonly seen in the ocean, not on land. Neretin and Emeliankenko’s discovery could possibly be the first documented explanation for glowing snow, according to National Geographic, which has been seen but not tested by researchers in the Arctic.
Copepods can glow thanks to a chemical reaction that yields the light-emitting substrate coelenterazine. They wield it as a way to ward off predators. However, the defense strategy doesn’t always pan out and coelenterazine can scale the food chain enabling larger organisms to also glow.
What makes their discovery within the snow so curious is that they are usually found in the ocean's depths not on its shores, and exactly how they came to be trapped in the snow will be explored further in a paper to be published by the team behind the discovery. “We have already conducted a full investigation and will be publishing a scientific article on the topic,” Semenov told IFLScience.
Watch this space.