Bioluminescence in a Bottle

Is it cruel to make products out of tiny glowing ocean creatures?

If you’ve ever wanted to bottle the magic of the ocean and dance around with it as though it were a glowstick, you’re in luck.

A company called BioPop is designing a line of products—lamps, some sort of wet “carpet”—that contain bioluminescent phytoplankton, or dinoflagellates, the tiny marine organisms that glow when disturbed. BioPop’s flagship creation is the Dino Pet ($60), a bulbous, dinosaur-shaped hunk of plastic that apparently lights up when you shake it. There is also Dino Food ($15), a children’s book ($10), and a “swanky T-Shirt”  ($20).

The Dino Pet is described as “a living, interactive ‘pet.’” (Yes, “pet” is in quotation marks.) In an advertisement, you can see somebody using it as a phosphorescent paper weight. Which seems to be an odd, if not altogether cruel, thing to do to miniature creatures who would otherwise live in the open ocean.

There’s certainly precedent for this kind of thing. Sea Monkeys are just tiny shrimp, after all. In the larger universe of animal cruelty, phytoplankton doesn't exactly rank high on the list of concerns. It’s not as though designers are making shoes and pocketbooks out of these things. “As a single cell, dinoflagellates do not have a nervous system so they do not feel pain, although that doesn't justify killing organisms for any reason,” said Michael Latz, who studies dinoflagellates in his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

There’s still something a bit bizarre, culturally, about removing a living thing, however small, from the ocean so that it might entertain people. Besides that, taking the glow out of the ocean saps a big part of what makes bioluminescent creatures awe-inspiring—kind of like plucking a shooting star out of the sky and turning it into a boring nightlight.

“I suppose, from the viewpoint of a dinoflagellate, it might be cruel to be sealed up in a lamp—they are living things,” said Margaret Anne McManus, who studies plankton at the University of Hawaii. “But then I suppose, we might want to question whether eating a salad is cruel. Lettuce is a living thing too.”