Tag Archives: Elkmont

Paradox of the Synchronous Symphony

Synchronous fireflies certainly highlight Earth’s natural magic, yet such cooperative behavior presents quite a thorny scientific paradox!

We do know how some fireflies manage to synchronize their flashing, thanks to work done in the 1960’s by John & Elisabeth Buck (previous post). For instance, male Pteroptyx fireflies in southeast Asia can reset their internal timekeeper whenever they see a neighbor’s flash. Inspired by Steve Strogatz’s book, Sync, Nick Case made a spectacular simulation to illustrate how this works – I’ve played with it for hours, and you can, too!

Photo by Radim Schreiber (Radim Photo)

Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains

But why do fireflies synchronize? Why should thousands of males so carefully coordinate their behavior to flash in unison, all of them marching to the beat of a single drummer? According to sexual selection theory, these males should be competing fiercely  with each other for the chance to mate. So why synchronize?

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The Double-edged Sword of Firefly Ecotourism

I believe that firefly ecotourism is poised to take off all over the world within the next few years. It’s already quite a popular activity in many Asian countries. For centuries, traveling to the countryside to admire the slow, floating flashes of Genji fireflies has been a favorite summer past-time in Japan. Over the past several decades, the synchronous fireflies that stretch out along the mangrove rivers of Thailand and Malaysia have spawned a thriving ecotourist industry.

catching fireflies woodblock

In Taiwan, the government has recently been promoting firefly tourism, and now each year over 100,000 visitors climb up into the Alishan mountains to view the summer and winter fireflies that thrive there. In other places, firefly tourism remains in its infancy. As my earlier post describes, visitors to firefly ecotourist sites in Nanacamilpa, Mexico have skyrocketed since 2014. In the United States, places like Elkmont, Tennessee and North Carolina’s Dupont State Forest are becoming increasingly popular destinations for their firefly-viewing.

Photo by Radim Schreiber (Radim Photo)

Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains

Yet firefly ecotourism carries both opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, it offers tangible benefits to local communities by promoting sustainable economic development. It’s also a terrific opportunity to educate visitors concerning the behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements of these beloved insects.

On the other hand, ecotourism carries challenges. It brings hordes of people into natural areas that are often far too fragile. In the case of fireflies, artificial light must be minimized, as it can interfere with fireflies’ luminous courtship signals. Some firefly species have flightless females, and these easily get trampled by people walking through their habitat. To minimize harm to natural firefly populations, thoughtful habitat management needs to be combined with environmental education.

As humans, we have a long history of taking our natural resources completely for granted. All too often, we regretfully note their demise only after they have vanished. Great auks, giant sequoias, Alishan’s hinoki cedars, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are but a few of the treasures we’ve already lost.

Maybe it’s time to pause a moment. Let’s decide what parts of the natural world we truly value. What kind of world do we want to leave for our children and our grandchildren? Then let’s get busy protecting those places and those creatures before it’s too late.

Can fireflies flee forest fires?

Following a summer of scorching drought, wildfires have ravaged parts of the southeastern United States. Last month, a devastating fire burned out of control through Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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Chimney 2 forest fire burns in the Smoky Mountains (Nov 2016)

From its starting point in the Great Smokies National Park, the fire exploded into an inferno fanned by strong winds. For days, hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze. The Sevier County mayor called the combination of wind and dry tinder a “once-in-a-lifetime event…a perfect storm.” By the time they finally extinguished the fire, the charred landscape stretched across 17,500 acres. Fourteen people lost their lives, and nearly 200 were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to evacuate, and over 2400 homes and businesses were destroyed.

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