One of the most exciting and fabulously popular events each year in late May and early-to-mid June is the flashy mating ritual of the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains. This year’s peak dates for firefly viewing are June 7-14 and thousands of visitors will be gathering, just as they have for years, near the Elkmont Campground to observe this naturally occurring phenomenon.
Why does Photinus carolinus attract not only its mate but also a large human fan club through its rhythmic flashing? We asked Dr. William R. Kuhn, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, to illuminate this topic.
FF: First of all, how are you involved with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and what makes it exciting for you?
WK: I am a member of Discover Life in America's board and have recently become chair of the Science Committee. In addition, I've helped with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory's sampling effort, including collecting assassin bugs (predatory insects related to stink bugs and cicadas) in the park, as they were considered under-studied here. So far, this work has resulted in a new species record for the park. Every time I work in the Smokies, I think to myself what a privilege it is to be in such a beautiful and diverse place!Read more...
Ever since Elkmont's synchronous fireflies became an internationally celebrated event with many tens of thousands of would-be attendees vying for some 4,000 available slots, the question of when the fireflies will flash has become a critical one.
Several years ago -- before the current firefly prediction system was initiated -- an unusually warm spring provoked the famed fireflies into an exceptionally early performance, meaning that by the time the lucky winners of the event’s www.recreation.gov lottery arrived for the show, the bioluminescent beetles had courted and bred and put away their flashers for the year.Read more...
During late May and early June, thousands of eager observers from around the world travel to the Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to observe the phenomenon of synchronized fireflies flashing in the night. The synchronized flashing was first scientifically documented in the Smokies in the 1960s and has since been identified in places like Congaree National Park in South Carolina and Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.
But the Elkmont area still draws the biggest crowds. In fact, access to the area during firefly season is now managed by the National Park Service with a free lottery system.
Most of the world’s hundreds of species of fireflies use their flashes to attract suitable mates. Generally, during breeding season, females wait patiently on the ground for males to fly over them and flash their flashers. If the females recognize the flashes (by flash length, flash intervals, and flash numbers) as coming from a male of their own species, they will respond with their own specific Morse-code-like sequence of flashes. Conversely, when the males recognize the correct flash response from a female, they respond with more flashes specific to their species. Once both male and female have confirmed that they are flirting with members of the same species, mating occurs.Read more...