April 13 – Lightning Fast

Today’s Factismal: The males of the lightning bug species Photinus carolinus will all flash in unison.

Imagine that you are in the Great Smokey Mountains, hiking along a trail at night. Suddenly, the trees come alive with hundreds of thousands of little lights, all flashing at the same time. You’ve just seen Photinus carolinus (“Light-maker from Carolina”) in action. These little lightning bugs are also called fireflies, even though they are neither bugs nor flies; they are beetles.

A firefly on a leaf(Image courtesy Museum of Science)

A firefly on a leaf
(Image courtesy Museum of Science)

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies, each of them has its own unique flashing pattern including not at all for several species. Only a very few patterns include flashing in unison; these optical chorus lines can be seen in the jungles of Malaysia, along the rivers of the Philippines, and in the forests of Tennessee and South Carolina. For most of the species, the light flash is a way for the one firefly to attract another in order to make more lightning bugs. But there are many fireflies that have a somewhat more insidious purpose; the female fireflies use the flashes to attract males of other species, whom they then turn into dinner.

Not all fireflies eat other fireflies. Many lightning bugs eat plants, pollen, nectar, insects, and even snails! About the only thing that they all do is glow as larvae. If you’d like to learn more about fireflies and help scientists track these lightning bugs, then why not join a firefly watch program?

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