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A Sea Full of Stars: Will the "Oceanic Fireflies" Disappear?

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From the forest behind your childhood home to the office building you work in, the world is filled with ecosystems home to thousands of living beings. Each pocket of life has its own intricacies.

What happens when two disparate ecosystems begin to interact?

We examine the case of Mosquito Bay, Puerto Rico for answers....

Tourism and the Puerto Rican Microbiome

For Mosquito Bay, a bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico, the answer is dark. The bay is a highly popular tourist destination because of the dinoflagellates living in the warm, shallow waters. In the evening, as the waves break against the sand, the tiny organisms light up brightly and mirror the stars above. It's no wonder these oceanic fireflies draw a crowd.

Recently, however, the crowds are leaving disappointed: the dinoflagellates are disappearing. Researchers have looked at nearby businesses and shipping companies to find the root of the problem, and have come to the conclusion that this change has been spurred by the tourism itself.

The luminous microorganisms are incredibly fragile, and have been reacting to the environmental changes visitors have brought to the bay. Everything visitors wear when they swim, from bug spray to suntan lotion, is having an effect on this ecosystem. Just as the bacteria in our microbiomes are very sensitive, so too are the microorganisms in the bay - and they are being harmed by the products we use on our bodies. The human ecosystem is rubbing up against the ecosystem of the bay, and the balance of the bay is slipping.

In an effort to save the bay, officials have stopped all swimming and are restricting boat tours. The dinoflagellate population has fluctuated in the past, but measures to heal the bay have only worked temporarily. The lights come back, the tourists return, and the cycle continues.

Is there hope?

Ecosystems are fragile, delicate, and beautiful. They hinge on the interaction of the organisms that connect in them - but also on their interactions with other, outside ecosystems.

Due to this symbiotic relationship, we can’t view any microbiome in isolation. Even the tiny ecosystems on our skin are highly reactive to and dependent on the skin care products we do (or don’t) use, and the lifestyles we expose them to. And think of what these products are doing to us; if they’re toxic to other organisms, can they be truly harmless to us?

By practicing mindfulness and biome-friendliness in our personal care routines, we help keep the human ecosystem and the ecosystems of the world working in unison, in balance, and in luminous symbiosis.

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