Category Archives: Blog

After the TED talk, after the book….because writing about fireflies is fun!

Black-assed fireflies @ Liyu Lake

Yesterday we took a firefly tour with our friends from Taroko National Park, Sophia & Soo and their two daughters. We drove south through the East Rift Valley, stopped off for dinner, and then headed to Liyu Lake in Hualien County.

Just past the entrance, the warm glow coming from a tent hung with red paper lanterns and brimming with people enticed us inside. There, enthusiastic volunteers talked to small groups of people – these were mostly adults along with a few kids. Using the colorful banners strung along the walls, each volunteer gave a short, informative talk describing the firefly life cycle, ecology and behavior.

Later, we followed Jackie, our volunteer guide, out into the night to enjoy the romantic flashdance of black-assed fireflies (Ascondita cerata), Taiwan’s most widely distributed species.

Jackie told us that 200+ people visit Liyu Lake every night during the summer-long firefly season. Each spring she attends a 2-day training session in order to be a firefly guide. The government funds the training program, along with all the interpretive materials. As Jackie explained to us, the government thinks this investment is worthwhile because it “shows the community the value of preserving fireflies.” So inspiring!

But it left me wondering – what would it take to set up a similar education program at firefly tourist sites in the United States?

We’re gathering for firefly science

Just a few days now until the beginning of the 2017 International Firefly Symposium  in Taiwan. This is very exciting because Taipei has been highly successful in restoring urban firefly habitats.  I’m honored to be chosen as one of the keynote speakers, and I’m looking forward to learning a lot!Taiwan Talk Frontispiece

The meeting will take place at the Taipei Zoo, where scientists, artists, and conservationists from all over the world will be converging. I’ll be posting updates right here, so stay tuned!

Cultivating the sense of wonder

The world of nature lost a powerful advocate when Rachel Carson, that gifted writer and reluctant activist, died of cancer on April 14th, 1964 at the young age of 56. These words are taken from her last book, The Sense of Wonder (Harper & Row 1965):

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

… [My] gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

Though I was only 12 years old when this book was published, this slim volume would exert an oversized influence on my life.

Both my parents loved the sea, walking in the woods, and gardening. They  instilled in their offspring a deep appreciation for the natural world.

herbaxa1980.jpg

My Dad loved the sea (Grand Cayman, 1980)

Fast-forward many years… when my Dad had just turned 84, I got this slipcased edition (The Nature Company 1990, with photographs by William G. Neill). And I inscribed it for him.

To HDL from SML

To the one who inspired my sense of wonder

When I wrote the dedication for Silent Sparks, I finally got the chance to express my love and gratitude to both my parents:

For my parents –

They lived and loved together for nearly ninety years,

and fed us wonder when we were very young.

 

 

Those Invisible Lines of Connection

Invisible lines of connection run through all our lives, knitting them together. Those lines  burned brightly for me yesterday,  when I met John Buck’s daughter and grand-daughter.

John Buck (1913-2005) was a towering figure in firefly science. He dedicated his life to deciphering how these luminous creatures manage to control their flashes, aided in his research by Elisabeth, his wife of 65 years. Deeply fascinated by firefly synchrony, they traveled to Southeast Asia to study how thousands of males manage to match up their rhythms. Continue reading

Taiwan, ho!

I’m honored to be giving a keynote talk at the upcoming International Firefly Symposium in Taipei next April! Held every three years, this meeting gives firefly scientists and enthusiasts from all over the world a chance to gather and discuss the latest finding on firefly biology and conservation. Taiwan boasts more than 50 different firefly species, and has emerged as a leader in firefly conservation and habitat restoration.

taiwan

Meeting participants hail from 22 countries, including Thailand, Japan, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire, Mongolia, India, and Indonesia.

I’ll be speaking about “Emerging Directions in Firefly Research” – you can check out the other keynote speakers here.

Shedding More Light on Firefly Sex

Natural selection is based on the struggle for survival, but sexual selection is driven by the struggle for reproductive opportunity. And sexual selection turns out to be quite a powerful evolutionary force – it’s the reason we can enjoy such melodious birdsong,  extravagant peacock tails,  gigantic deer antlers, and such spectacular firefly flashes!

We know that fireflies give bioluminescent courtship signals, but firefly sex goes way beyond flashing. While mating, many male fireflies give the female a spermatophore, which is an elaborate, sperm-containing package. This firefly “nuptial gift” represents a hefty male investment that’s entirely home-made: it takes several glands to manufacture each gift. Until recently, though, we’ve been largely in the dark about the composition of these mysterious gifts.

firefly gift and mating

Some firefly males give nuptial gifts (they’re actually really tiny)

Continue reading

Chinese Fireflies: An Encouraging Update

Many readers have spoken out against the commercial harvesting of wild fireflies in China, and nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban on such activity. In October 2016, The International Firefly Scientist Network wrote to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection expressing our concerns about the negative impact of commercial harvesting on firefly biodiversity in China.

Last week, we received a  very thoughtful and encouraging response  from Mr. CHENG Lifeng, Director General of the Biodiversity Conservation Office.  I’m delighted to share with you the following excerpt: Continue reading