Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom

Review Article

REVIEW. Sex with the lights on? A review of bioluminescent sexual dimorphism in the sea

Peter J.  Herring a1
a1 National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton Waterfront Campus, European Way, Southampton, SO14 3ZH, UK. E-mail:

Article author query
herring pj   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


The reflected patterns and colours of terrestrial animals often show a sexual dimorphism associated with visual display, mate recognition and selection. In the sea the structures associated with bioluminescence may also show a marked sexual dimorphism. Some apparent bioluminescent dimorphisms (e.g. differences in photophore numbers) are probably secondary functions of sexual differences in size. A role in sexual communication is much more likely where specific photophores are developed or enlarged in mature specimens of one sex only but the presence of light organs in female anglerfishes (but not in males) is complicated by a significant size dimorphism. Dimorphisms in dragonfishes and lanternfishes primarily involve the relative enlargement of particular photophores in the males. A sexual role is assumed, but the morphological differences are often small. Most male ponyfishes have enlarged light organs; behavioural observations of free-swimming animals have clearly demonstrated that the males use them to generate bioluminescent sexual signals.

(Published Online July 30 2007)
(Received November 13 2006)
(Accepted June 19 2007)