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Male Fireflies Stage Light Show for Females

Scientists who have been studying the fascinating nighttime synchronized firefly displays believe they have figured out the purpose for the behavior. The insect light displays are made by males so females can decide which ones they want to respond to with their own flashes. The scientists’ experiment involved placing female Photinus carolinus fireflies in petri dishes and then using technology for producing sequences of flashing lights. The females responded to the flashing lights much more often when they were synchronized. The determination from conducting the experiment was, “We conclude that one function of flash synchrony is to facilitate a female’s ability to recognize her conspecific male’s flashing by eliminating potential visual clutter from other flashing males.”

If you consider what is being said here, it is quite fascinating. Female Photinus carolinus fireflies it appears, have the ability to see a whole light display performance made of many different male flashes, and choose from among them. The light performance is similar to a symphony, in which there are many performers who play one piece of music, and yet each player’s contribution can be witnessed and responded to by audience members.

One of the researchers, Jonathan Copeland of Georgia Southern University, was aware of synchronized fireflies in Indonesia and Malaysia, but had not ever heard of them being in the U.S., until about 1993. Knoxville, Tennessee resident Lynn Faust contacted Steven Strogatz who forwarded him her information about firefly synchronization. This quote is from her letter to Strogatz,

“These bugs ‘start up’ in mid June at around 10:00 pm nightly. They exhibit 6 seconds of total darkness then in perfect synchrony, 1000’s light up 6 rapid times in a 3 second period before all going dark for 6 more seconds… as far as we know, it is only in this small area that this particular type of group synchronized lightning bug exists. It is beautiful.”

Video of Synchronous Fireflies (Better seen in a dark room)

After visiting, he could see indeed she was correct. They wound up collaborating on a publication together, titled “The Night Lights of Elkmont” in which they described the light displays of the species Photinus carolinus: “A male produces four to eight very bright flashes in rapid succession (approximately two flashes per second). Then, he waits for eight to 12 seconds and produces four to eight flashes more. A female can be identified because her very weak pulsed flash occurs when the males are not flashing.” The Photinus carolinus species appears to be based in Elkmont, Tennessee.

Image Credit: Goldring

Read more: Behavior & Communication, Nature & Wildlife, Pets, ,

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4:15AM PDT on Aug 12, 2010


5:44PM PDT on Jul 27, 2010

Wow. It was beautiful.

9:46AM PDT on Jul 23, 2010

now this is very interesting. i rarely see fireflies anymore, but back in the 70's in our neighborhood in so florida there were millions. they would syncronize flashes and vary the display over the course of 15 min or so. they would start to flash in unison and then, amazingly, start a light wave that would circle around and around the house. nobody but my family and neighbors who witnessed this would believe it. i stopped telling the story after being called a liar and exaggerator a few times, so i am happy that finally someone has filmed & documented it. in video # 2 the "wave" effect can be seen slightly, but nowhere near as clear as i have seen.

6:49AM PDT on Jul 20, 2010

Interesting story!
I'll take your word for it!

5:48AM PDT on Jul 19, 2010


5:46AM PDT on Jul 19, 2010


5:23AM PDT on Jul 17, 2010

Amazing! Once again nature has produced something both beautiful and highly intelligent...thanks for sharing :)

8:47AM PDT on Jul 16, 2010

It would be cool to see firefly's live.

12:43AM PDT on Jul 16, 2010


2:35PM PDT on Jul 15, 2010

thanks for shareing

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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