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Smoky Mountain Fireflies Flash in Unison

Gatlinburg, TN - The bioluminescent beetles are neither bugs nor flies. But their Tennessee cousins put on dazzling light shows each June for three weeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their illuminations become a timeless mating ritual. The Smokies fireflies, unlike most, flash precisely in unison.

Smoky Mountain Field School instructor Wanda DeWaard calls the simultaneous flashing mysterious and magical. For decades Elkmont cabin residents watched these synchronous light shows of the species, Photinus carolinus. They assumed it was like that everywhere, she says.

DeWaard finds the whole process each year to be as magnificent as the last. People come from all walks of life, homemakers to entomologists. At dark, everyone gets very quiet. As flashing starts, you hear sighs of delight, she adds.

Dr. Jonathan Copeland, a Georgia Southern University biologist, had spent years traveling Southeast Asia, studying synchronously flashing fireflies there.

In the 1990s, Tennessee naturalist Lynn Faust read Copelandís Asian research and then wrote to him to tell him about the similar Smokies phenomena.

Dr. Copeland was intrigued and one June night came to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He dozed off and awoke to find himself amid swarms of fireflies flashing in unison. Now, he returns each June to study the species with Dr. Andy Moiseff, a Connecticut physiology professor.

Using technology, they shed new light on the species and the uncanny ability to let their little light shine in unison with other males. Flying two hours each night, the male species hovers, flashing their yellow-green light twice a second in timed bursts of four to eight. After a 10-second hiatus, they resume flashing to woo grounded females whose lights glow dimmer but steadier. The Smokies firefly, like others, must mate quickly because the male species lives for only a few days.

Park visitors may attend seminars where Copeland and DeWaard discuss synchronous flashing. There is a class at Sugarlands Visitor Center from 6:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on June 4, cost is $49. Another class meets at Little River trailhead in Elkmont from 8:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on June 6 and June 8, cost is $29. For more information on the seminars or to register please visit www.outreach.utk.edu or call the Smoky Mountain Field School at (865) 974-0150.

Elkmontís fireflies seem to be thriving, but no one knows how fragile they are. Participants stay on trails to avoid stepping on rarer female fireflies and photographers use special red-light film with flash attachments.

Scientists hope the phenomenon, which is seen also at nearby Cadeís Cove, Greenbrier and Townsend will yield better understanding of insect nervous systems and even human biorhythms, including the heartbeat.

Biorhythms greatly affect human health, Copeland says. The more we know, the better we can gauge those rhythms.

 

 
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