DOWNTOWN — Fireflies might be the only light-up creatures to regularly visit Chicago, but they're far from holding a monopoly on that particular talent.
Thousands of animals, mostly insects and sea life hiding miles below sea level, exhibit the quality known to scientists as "bioluminescence," an internal chemical reaction that allows living organisms to emit light.
The phenomenon is the subject of a new exhibition at the Field Museum that debuted Tuesday, with an opening ceremony that featured some special guests: second-graders from nearby Whittier Elementary School.
They were the first kids to get a sneak peek at "Creatures of Light," the exhibition sponsored by Discover that Field Museum researchers developed in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada.
"I learned about jellyfish. They glow in the dark, and they're so cool," said Kathy Hernandez, 8, a Whittier second-grader. "I like when we learned about the animals that don't live in the water, but live in the ground, the big bugs that light up. They're really cool. I don't like the big fish ... they're scary."
Hernandez said she especially liked the cave a few paces into the exhibit dedicated to fireflies. Flashing light patterns illustrate how bioluminescence helps them communicate, and large-scale models show the specific biological mechanisms that enable Illinois' omnipresent light-up insects.
"Creatures of Light" was years in the making, and the animals on display are the result of dozens of deep-sea collection dives, said Janet Hong, the exhibition's project developer.
"Some of them are from fairly recent dives, some of them are older," Hong said. "They vary through the decades from Field Museum collections."
One of the challenges in creating an exhibit that highlights the intricacies of organic light is creating the right environment, Hong said. It's easily the darkest corner of the Field Museum, which Whittier teachers said frightened some of the younger kids.
"I mean, it is true for everybody, your pupils have to dilate when you get in the first room," she said. "But the topic of the exhibition is about things that glow in the dark, make their own light, so we wanted to recreate some of those environments. ... It's darker than people are used to in a museum, but I really feel like it enfolds you in this atmosphere of mystery."
Other highlights of the exhibit include interactive light displays and a "deep sea theater," where guess can view footage shot in the deepest corners of the ocean. The museum also produced a free companion app available in the iTunes store that complements the exhibit.
"Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence" will be at the Field Museum through Sept 8. Tickets to the exhibit are included in Discovery and All-Access passes to the museum, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.