A fungus gnat does not sound like a particularly alluring animal. And for the most part, these small, drab flies are pretty unappealing. But one particular species of fungus gnat found only in New Zealand has an illuminating secret: in its larval stage, Arachnocampa luminosa, also known as the glowworm, is capable of putting on a breathtaking light show. 

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These spectacular images created by photographer Joseph Michael show the cavernous darkness of several caves on New Zealand’s North Island transformed by pinpoints of starry glowworm light.

The gnat larvae spend their six or so months of life within this subterranean safety, ensconced in silky tubes on the walls, ceilings and stalactites of the caves. Their blue-green glow is actually emitted by special organs in their tails, and it acts like a luminous lure for prey – prey that the hungry larvae snare and hoist up to be devoured with the help of silky "fishing lines" beaded with droplets of mucus and suspended from above.

"The glow worms are actually quite abundant in New Zealand. Growing up here ... I thought it was just a regular thing to see. [But] as I’ve travelled to many interesting places around the world, I've begun to realise more and more how amazing and unique this little island in the south Pacific is," Michael says.

His long-exposure images of the limestone caves all lit up were created as part of a larger multi-media installation focusing on bioluminescence. "I'd never seen a photographer capture the glow worms the way I wanted to see them portrayed, so I spent a few months in the caves with [a] Nikon D810," he explains.

And getting just the right shots for the glowworm series – which he has named Luminescence – was no mean feat, involving hours of planning and a good dose of discomfort. "The glow worms are always found above water, so I would find myself standing in cold water for hours on end to capture the images. The exposures were so long that I had to do a lot more planning than I would normally do, and some nights I would only have the opportunity to do six or eight photos over the whole night," he recalls.

All of that hard work has clearly paid off, because the results are nothing short of epic.

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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 
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Image: Joseph Michael 

To see more of Joseph Michael's work, visit his website.