Long Live Fireflies!



A firefly rests on a leaf/Copyright (c) 2004 Bruce Martin

Nothing makes summer nights more magical than the dancing lights of fireflies. Fireflies live throughout the world, but it seems many species have started disappearing, and no one really knows why. Scientists suspect various things causing firefly decline, from pesticides to habitat loss to light pollution – in other words lights at night may affect the blinking insects that evolved to blink in the dark. But with little information on historical numbers for most species, scientists really don’t know.

Enter Firefly Watch, a citizen science project where people across the U.S. - and even around the world - can send in information on fireflies they see while out and about, enjoying an evening picnic at the lake or camping, or just peering out at the firefly lights in their backyard. Firefly Watch is run by scientists at Tufts University, Fitchburg State College and the Museum of Science in Boston but volunteers can collect data on fireflies across the nation. Anyone can participate! All you do is pick a locale, provide some detail about the site such as whether the location has mown or overgrown grass, shrubs, water, and the like, and then report on firefly presence or absence for as long as you can. “FireflyWatch is a nation-wide and potentially world-wide project,” says Fitchburg College Biology Professor Christopher Cratsley. “The maps on the site allow for data entry from anywhere on the planet.”  The primary focus of the information provided on the site is geared towards North American firefly watchers, though.

Carl Zimmer wrote an article about the Firefly Watch project for the New York Times, Blink Twice if You Like Me, which also covered the firefly evolutionary ecology research by Tufts University professor Sara Lewis. The website actually was the brainchild of one of Lewis’ former graduate students, Adam South, and Don Salvatore at the Museum of Science. South recruited two of Lewis’ former students, including Kristian Demary who studies the impact of light pollution on fireflies including data collected from Firefly Watch volunteers, and Cratsley, who is very interested in the citizen science aspect. “My career balances research on fireflies with efforts to improve science education through teacher preparation, professional development and outreach,” says Cratsley. Lewis also started the FLASH Together Now website, which stands for Firefly Lovers Act to Save our Heritage, a website that draws attention to reasons behind firefly decline.

Last fall I wrote an article about fireflies in lore and legend around the world for Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Fire Beetle. I had gone camping with my son and his middle school class on the banks of Texas’ Colorado River, and some of the kids saw fireflies for the first time of their lives. Many tried to catch them in jars, as kids often do, and we all delighted in the magic of the moment.

The part of the firefly’s ‘behind’ that blinks is called a lantern. The original evolutionary purpose of their glowing bioluminescence is a warning to potential predators that their bodies contain noxious chemicals called lucibufagins. Actually, all firefly larvae glow, they’re called glow worms, but not all adult fireflies glow. Fireflies, for the record, are not flies but beetles. And over evolutionary history, most firefly species have co-opted their glowing body parts to attract mates. The U.S. has about 175 firefly species, each with its own color and flashing pattern. Some species in other countries blink synchronously. And one of my favorite tidbits of information is that the Japanese word for firefly, hotaru, implies harmony between humankind and all other creatures on the planet. Long live fireflies!

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