Noctiluca scintillans

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Noctiluca scintillans
Noctiluca scintillans varias.jpg
Scientific classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Chromalveolata
Phylum: Dinoflagellata
Class: Noctiluciphyceae
Order: Noctilucales
Family: Noctilucaceae
Genus: Noctiluca
Species: N. scintillans
Binomial name
Noctiluca scintillans

Noctiluca miliaris

Noctiluca scintillans, commonly known as the Sea Sparkle,[1] and also published as Noctiluca miliaris, is a free-living non-parasitic marine-dwelling species of dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence, when disturbed. The bioluminescent characteristic of N. scintillans is produced by a luciferin-luciferase reaction that takes place in thousands of spherically shaped organelles, called scintillons, located throughout the cytoplasm of this single-celled protist. Nonluminescent populations within the genus Noctiluca lack these scintillons.


Long exposure image of bioluminescence of Noctiluca scintillans in the yacht port of Zeebrugge

N. scintillans is a heterotroph (non-photosynthetic) that engulfs its food by phagocytosis, which includes plankton, diatoms, other dinoflagellates, as well as fish eggs and bacteria. Diatoms are often found in the vacuoles (internal membrane-bound storage compartments) within these single-celled creatures. These green non-feeding symbioses can grow photoautotrophically for generations.[2] The diatom Thalassiosira sp. has been noted in the literature as a favored food source of these organisms.


N. scintillans can be found widely distributed throughout the world, often along the coast, in estuary, and shallow areas of the continental shelf that receive plenty of light which promotes the growth of the phytoplankton that make up a large portion of N. scintillans’s diet.


The size of the single-celled N. scintillans ranges from 200 to 2,000 µm in diameter, assuming the generally spherical shape. N. scintillans lacks the armor plates possessed by other types of dinoflagellates. And, unlike many other dinoflagellates, the chromosomes of the Noctiluca are not clearly visible and condensed throughout its lifecycle.

Life cycle[edit]

Noctiluca is unusual amongst dinoflagellates in appearing to have a diplontic life-cycle.[3]


N. scintillans has a ventral groove within which is located a flagellum, an extension of the cell wall called a tooth, and a striated tentacle involved in ingestion that projects posteriorly. The flagellum does not move the organism and therefore the non-motile N. scintillans depends upon regulation of its buoyancy within the water column – perhaps by controlling its cellular concentration of ions and ammonia.

At least one study has shown that a string of mucus is produced by N. scintillans extending from the tip of the tentacle which then adheres to plankton as it ascends rapidly through concentrations of its prey in the water column.


High concentrations of their plankton food source that likely result from environmental conditions such as well-mixed nutrient-rich waters and seasonal circulation factors are implicated in population blooms of N. scintillans.

Swimmers may report being illuminated by a ghostly glow-in-the-dark plankton - a floating bloom of algae which fires up into a luminescent sparkle when disturbed. This gives Noctiluca scintillans the popular names "Sea Ghost" or "Fire of Sea".[4]

Runoff from agricultural pollution may contribute to the severity of these blooms. However this is not required to cause explosive growth of Noctiluca scintillans.

Not all blooms associated with N. scintillans are red. The color of N. scintillans is in part derived from the pigments of organisms inside the vacuoles of N. scintillans. For instance, green tides result from N. scintillans populations that contain green-pigmented prasinophytes (green algae, Subphylum Chlorophyta)[5] that are living in their vacuoles.

N. scintillans itself does not appear to be toxic, but as they feed voraciously on phytoplankton high levels of ammonia accumulate in these organisms which is then excreted by N. scintillans into the surrounding area which may add to the neurotoxic chemicals being produced by other dinoflagellates, such as Alexandrium spp. or Gonyaulax spp., that do result in the death of other aquatic life in the area.

Evolutionary development[edit]

DNA sequence comparisons suggest that the closest relative of the genus Noctiluca is Spatulodinium. Spatulodinium pseudonoctiluca seems to be closer related to N. scintillans than to other Spatulodinium species.[6]

N. scintillans is also placed within a classification scheme that has a class Diniferea, or Dinophyceae, which includes nonparasitic dinoflagellates that lack armor plating.[7]


  1. ^ "A image of the "Sea Sparkle" from 'Britannica Online Encyclopedia'". Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  2. ^ Saito, Haruna, Ken Furuya & Thaithaworn Lirdwitayarpasit, 2006. Photoautotrophic growth of Noctiluca scintillans with the endosymbiont Pedinomonas noctilucae. Plankton & Benthos Research 1: 97–101
  3. ^ ZINGMARK, R. G., 1970. Sexual reproduction in the dinoflagellate Noctiluca miliaris Suriray. Journal of Phycology, 6(2): 122-126.
  4. ^ "Lights in Irish Sea are natural". Irish Times. 18 October 2009. 
  5. ^ Pascher, 1914
  6. ^ Gómez F, Moreira D, López-García P (2010). "Molecular phylogeny of noctilucoid dinoflagellates (Noctilucales, Dinophyceae)". Protist 161 (3): 466–478. doi:10.1016/j.protis.2009.12.005. PMID 20188628. 
  7. ^ Hausmann et al. 2003

Other references[edit]

  • Eckert R & Reynolds GT. 1967. "The Subcellular Origin of Bioluminescence in Noctiluca miliaris". J Gen Physiol. 50 (5): 1429-58.
  • Elbrächter, M. and Y. Z. Qi. 1998. "Aspects of Noctiluca (Dinophyceae) population dynamics." In: D.M. Anderson et al., Physiological Ecology of Harmful Algal Blooms. NATO ASI Series, Vol. G 41. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 315–335.
  • Hausmann, Klaus; Hulsmann, Norbert; & Radek, Renate; "Protistology" (3rd Edition) 2003. in E. Scheizerbart’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
  • Lenaers, Guy; Christopher Scholin, Yvonne Bhaud, Danielle Saint-Hilaire and Michel Herzog. 1991. "A molecular phylogeny of dinoflagellate protists (Pyrrhophyta) inferred from the sequence of 24S rRNA divergent domains D1 and D8." Journal of Molecular Evolution. Volume 32: 1; pp. 53–63
  • Murray, Shauna; Marten Flø Jørgensen, Simon Y.W. Ho, David J. Patterson, and Lars S. Jermiin. 2005. "Improving the Analysis of Dinoflagellate Phylogeny based on rDNA." Protist. Vol. 156, 269-286
  • Palmer, Jefferey D. 2003. "The Symbiotic Birth and Spread of Plastids: How Many Times and Whodunit?" J. Phycol. 39, 4-11
  • Tada, Kuninao; Santiwat Pithakpol, Rumiko Yano and Shigeru Montani. 2000. "Carbon and nitrogen content of Noctiluca scintillans in the Seto Inland Sea, Japan." Journal of Plankton Research. Vol.22 no.6 pp. 1203–1211
  • Thomas Kiørboe and Josefin Titelman. 1998. "Feeding, prey selection and prey encounter mechanisms in the heterotrophic dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans." Journal of Plankton Research. V20: 8 pp. 1615–1636
  • Umani, S. Fonda; A. Beran, S. Parlato, D. Virgilio, T. Zollet, A. De Olazabal, B. Lazzarini and M. Cabrini. 2004. "Noctiluca scintillans in the Northern Adriatic Sea: long-term dynamics, relationships with temperature and eutrophication, and role in the food web." Journal of Plankton Research. 26(5):545-561

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