Amazing Places

Glowworms Give the Waitomo Caves a Brilliant Blue Nighttime Glow

You're about to gain a whole new appreciation for worms. One species of these squirmy, squishy, fleshy things turns the Waitomo Caves of New Zealand into living, breathing art. Who knew larvae could be so beautiful?

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It's Lit

The glowworm cave has long been known to the local Maori people. But in 1887, Maori Chief Tane Tinorau took English surveyor Fred Mace on an adventure to the caves of Waitomo to show him, and subsequently the world, its magnificence. They took a little raft down a stream into the caverns and looked up to see glittering blue stars somehow illuminating the cave. Mace prepared an account of the expedition, made a map, and supplied photographs to the government. Soon, Tane Tinorau was operating cave tours for more than just adventurous surveyors.

The Worms at Night Are Big and Bright

It's not magic; it's just worms. Caves are cool enough geologic formations on their own, but the secret sauce that makes the Waitomo caves awe-inspiring is what lives within it: the new Zealand fungus gnat Arachnocampa luminosa, which is a type of glowworm. The ceiling of the cave is covered in thousands of these bioluminescent little creatures.

Just as the caves wouldn't be anything remarkable in the daylight, these insects aren't very interesting in their mosquito-sized adult stage. But as , the little gnats turn the underground scene into a walk-in Lite-Brite. The babies have transparent skin through which a greenish blue light can shine, thanks to a chemical reaction that occurs in an organ in their butts. The purpose of the glow is to attract food and mates. And, of course, tourists.

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Written by Joanie Faletto December 17, 2017

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