The Luxor Las Vegas is a massive black and glass pyramid seemingly rising from the desert sands. The resort casino with the Egyptian theme even has a giant sphinx ‘guarding’ the entrance. But at night the Luxor really shines. The Luxor Sky Beam is the strongest light on earth and can be seen more than 250 miles away by cruising aircraft.
But the bright light column shooting straight up from the apex of the pyramid attracts more than just gamblers. Visitors at night stopped to gape in awe at a swirling vortex of bright, flickering lights all around the beam. These aren’t special effects or the latest casino effort to stand out.
Meet the millions of insects, birds, and bats that swarm around the Luxor Sky Beam at night to form a unique ecosystem.
The Light Fandango
The cause of all the commotion is the Sky Beam’s 42.3 billion candela light tunnel, which is made up of 39 xenon lamps rating 7,000 watts each. Curved mirrors focus the 39 lamps into one intense, narrow beam shooting straight up into the night sky.
At full power, the Sky Beam costs $51 an hour to operate the light assembly, which burns 315,000 watts of electricity. The lamp room housing the Sky Beam reaches temperatures of 300 °F when operating. But the room must operate with the windows closed, otherwise any bats or birds landing on it would instantly burn to a crisp and damage the lights in the process.
While the owners of the Luxor probably designed the Sky Beam to scream ‘look at me!’ to all of Las Vegas, this one-upmanship led to a startling, if not predictable, side effect: millions of insects, beetles, bats, and night birds are drawn to the Sky Beam.
Seen from a distance, the Sky Beam appears to be dancing with sparkling lights and shadows, swirling upward in a vortex following the intense beam of light into the night sky.
This otherworldly nocturnal dance appears to be a mass ascension into the cosmos when seen from afar. But in fact, it’s just the largest all-you-can-eat buffet in Las Vegas. For bats, the Sky Beam is just one giant bug buffet.
Bats everywhere come out in droves at twilight to flit about the sky to feed on insects. Using radar, these nearly blind sky rodents can devour thousands of insects in the brief time they are swarming.
But then the Luxor Sky Beam came to town, and with it, moths to the proverbial flame. The billions of moths, beetles, and other flying insects are naturally attracted to the light, which causes a swirling bug beacon that even the slowest bat can find.
As the casino crowd trundles over to their all-you-can casino buffets, the bats take to the sky for an aerial bug buffet of bacchanalian proportions. But while the bats are feverishly overindulging in light-dazzled bugs, they too add to the evening festivities.
The bats soon become a menu item themselves, as night owls starting swooping in for a quick bite. Owls are right at home swooping on field mice, so grabbing some flying rodent snacks at midnight is the perfect night out.
But what specific types of winged creatures make up this aerial food chain? The bats are mainly of the species Brazilian free-tailed bats, which have wingspans up to 10 inches, and the smaller Western pipistrelles bat variety.
Nocturnal birds like nighthawks also crash the party to belly up to the Sky Beam bug buffet. The sumptuous smorgasbat draws in owls of several varieties, including the small Flammulated Owl, Long-eared Owl, Great-Horned Owl, Barn Owl, and the Western Screech Owl.
In this flapping food feast, the only creature not getting anything out of the deal is at the bottom of the food chain. The reason insects are drawn in droves to bright lights is that they are simply confused. Bright lights confuse their navigation systems, forcing them to swirl around the light source as if trying to force their way to the heart of the problem.
So, with all these bats eating millions of insects every night, wouldn’t there be a guano problem? Maybe the smooth, glass surface of the Luxor pyramid deflects bat droppings like water off a duck’s back.
But an easier theory to believe is that the bats quickly fill their bellies and head back to their caves and crevices for the night. Bats come from all around for the bug buffet, and hail from attics of nearby homes, roosts at the airport, or caves in Red Rock Canyon, which is 20 miles away. News travels fast in the desert.
A common scene along the freeway approaching Vegas is people pulling their cars over at night and gawking at the Luxor Sky Beam. Sure, it’s impressive, but some of them see the swirling, shadowy shapes around the beam, which appear to be dancing and sparkling around the light column.
Some people have immediately gone straight to UFOs to explain it. Anything that can’t be immediately understood must be aliens, right? From a distance, the whole ecosystem looks like a cloudy tornado of activity or a mass of paper debris caught in an updraft.
But it’s just nature at work, folks. There is nothing natural about a mega-powerful light shooting straight up in the night sky, illuminating nothing. But the beam is a boon for all sorts of night creatures, who don’t seem to question the thing. They just swoop in for the feast.
If you want to behold the spectacle of the Luxor Sky Beam, now’s the time to do it. Rumors of the Luxor’s end are circulating, as the owners are considering ditching the Egyptian theme like a bad curse and moving on to something else.
MGM Resorts, which owns Luxor, feels stuck with a dated theme. There’s not much you can do with a pyramid other than an Egyptian theme. The company also owns another family-friendly resort, the Excalibur. But Vegas is steering away from family vacations to adults-only casinos.
But if the Luxor is demolished, it’s lights out for the brightest beam on earth, and an end to the bacchanalian bug buffet in the Las Vegas skies.
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