Ocean Sciences News

New Postage Stamps Focus on Bioluminescent Marine Life

The stamps help draw attention to the wonders of creatures that generate their own light and to the environmental problems that threaten them in marine habitats, scientists say.


The U.S. Postal Service today rolled out a glimmering collection of stamps showcasing bioluminescent life at a first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony in Fort Pierce, Fla. The pane of 20 stamps features 10 photographs of bioluminescent life, 8 of which are marine creatures that can generate their own light.

The Forever stamps provide “a picture of our oceans that few people ever see,” U.S. Postal Service spokesperson Mark Saunders told Eos. “We are hoping that by issuing these stamps it will open up a conversation for people to learn more” about bioluminescence and the oceans.

Full panel of bioluminescent USPS stamps
This full panel of bioluminescent stamps includes two full sets of eight marine and two terrestrial creatures that have the ability to light themselves up. Credit: 2018 USPS

The collection includes photos of marine creatures such as a deep-ocean octopus, midwater jellyfish, bamboo coral, and marine worms, along with two examples of nonmarine bioluminescence: a mushroom and a firefly. The colorful images on the shimmering and highly reflective sheet of stamps “really pop out” when they are held to the light, Saunders said.

The postal service’s Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee, which annually receives about 40,000 suggestions for stamps,  recommended the topic to the postmaster general as something that would resonate with the American public from a national perspective, according to Saunders. Other recent stamps have focused on U.S. national parks, the solar system, and the 2017 solar eclipse.

A “Magical Phenomenon”

Deep-sea explorer Edith Widder, who took 7 of the 10 photos featured in the collection, told Eos that she hopes the stamps can show people one of the natural wonders of the world.

“The thing most thrilling to me is the opportunity to make people aware of what I think is just absolutely the most spectacular, magical phenomenon on the planet that most people are completely unaware of. Stamps are such a great way to reach the public in ways that science so rarely gets the opportunity,” said Widder, founder, CEO, and senior scientist of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, a group based in Fort Pierce that works to protect and restore marine ecosystems.

The stamps also can provide a conservation message to people who see and use them, Widder said. “I want them to know how much extraordinary life there is in the ocean that we haven’t even studied yet,” she commented, adding, “The fact is, we are destroying a lot of the ocean before we even know what’s in it.”

The vast abundance of self-illuminating marine creatures at or below twilight depth indicates that bioluminescence “has got to be one of the most important processes in the ocean,” Widder said, noting that “if you drag a net through many regions of the world’s oceans, 80%–90% of the animals in that net make light.”

Widder said that bioluminescence takes a great amount of energy for organisms to make and that they appear to use it for multiple critical survival purposes, including attracting mates, finding food, and defending against predators.

Bioluminescent USPS stamps featuring (left) a sea pen and (right) a marine worm
These stamps of (left) a sea pen (Umbellula) and (right) a marine worm (Tomopteris) depict bioluminescent organisms showcased in a new set of U.S. postage stamps issued today. Credit: 2018 USPS, Photos by Edith Widder (sea pen) and Steve Haddock (marine worm)

She and another photographer featured in the stamp collection, Steven Haddock, also noted the potential that bioluminescent substances have for bioscience applications. For instance, the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to researchers who used a green fluorescent protein first observed in the Aequorea victoria jellyfish as a tool for studying the spread of cancer cells and other biological processes.

Encouraging a Deeper Dive into the Topic

Haddock, senior scientist and marine biologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., took the photograph of the marine worm Tomopteris included on the stamp sheet. Haddock told Eos that the stamps could encourage people to “do a little bit deeper dive, so to speak, into the subject” of bioluminescence “and appreciate some of the unknown diversity that’s out there in the ocean.”

Although the beauty of bioluminescent creatures is initially what drew Haddock to study them, he said that what has maintained his interest is “the sheer number of unanswered questions,” such as what chemical reactions many creatures use to produce bioluminescence.

Haddock planned to carry on with his normal work as the stamps were issued today, including sequencing genes from bioluminescent organisms. However, he confided that he and his wife might take their son on a field trip to the post office.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), New postage stamps focus on bioluminescent marine life, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO093687. Published on 22 February 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0