“Disco Clam” could hold the key to better paint and TV’s

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“Disco Clam” could hold the key to better paint and TV’s

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Known variously as the "electric flame scallop" and "fire clam", the mysterious Pacific bi-valve, Ctenoides Ales, is a source of fascination for Berkeley University marine biologist Lindsey Dougherty. She calls it the 'disco clam' and fondly recalls the first time she saw one.

"I was just blown away. I have dived with great whites, I have dived with humpback whales, I've dived with whale sharks. And with the disco clam, I was just immediately enamoured," said Dougherty.

It began, like so many love affairs, with the lips. In its habitat off the coast of the eastern Pacific rim, the disco clam has the brightest smile in the ocean, with lips that flash like a strobe light. Dougherty says many people confuse the clam's flashy light show with bioluminescence which produces light through a chemical reaction. She says the clam's shiny lips represent one of Nature's best examples of the ability to reflect light.

"What I found when I looked at their tissue is that their tissue is basically half filled with these small particles that reflect light very well and half of the tissue is empty. It is literally a dividing line down the tissue. And when you look at high speed video of what is happening, you can see the reflective part of the video unrolling and the light reflects and then the non-reflective side rolls back up. And you do high-speed video you can see that this is happening five or six times a second which makes it look like it is literally flashing," she said.

This reflective ability is so highly adapted, that the clam can produce its display deep underwater, where very little light penetrates. And while the disco clam puts on a great show, Dougherty says studying it could plays an important role in the field of photonics - understanding how light interacts with matter.

"So by learning about these natural structures and how they function, we can improve technology and have things better interact with light. So everything from paints to flat screen TV's to anti-counterfeiting devices. There is really a plethora of cool ways that these organisms can be applied to technology."

Dougherty says she is also trying to figure out why the clam puts on a show. She says it could be to attract prey or frighten off predators. Or, she says, it could be that the disco clam is simply looking for a mate to boogie with.

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