Next we traveled to Malaysia, where I was once again fortunate to see some exciting firefly education and conservation projects in action. I’m excited to share a few with you!
Conserving urban green space: Bukit Kiara, a former rubber plantation turned urban park that lies smack dab in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Along freshwater springs, biking, and walking paths the regenerating forest supports a healthy population of giant glow-worms (Lamprigera species). On our walk we found not only two gigantic wingless females (left-hand photo below), but also nearly a dozen glowing larvae moving rapidly across the forest floor as they searched for prey (middle photo). Females’ inability to fly severely limits the dispersal distance of these (and other) glow-worms, thus making them especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation and loss due to encroaching urban development. By serving as a flagship species, these fireflies could help the advocacy group Friends of Bukit Kiara and other stakeholders convince the government to conserve this urban green oasis.
“The fireflies, twinkling among leaves, make the stars wonder.”
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Well-managed firefly tourism: The Malaysian Nature Society empowers local communities by developing and sharing best practices for sustainable firefly tourism through their Firefly Kommunti, a network of firefly tour operators, nature guides and conservationists. This grass-roots initiative helps safeguard firefly populations while providing stable economic benefits for local communities. We visited Kuala Selangor Firefly Park in Kampung Kuantan, where standing oarsman take tourists along the mangrove river in traditional wooden sampans to see display trees sparkling with synchronous Pteroptyx tener fireflies. To restore firefly habitat in areas where riverside vegetation has been cleared, river protectors in the Inspirasi Kawa youth group have replanted saplings of berembang trees (Sonneratia caseolaris), favored by these synchronous fireflies for their spectacular courtship displays.
All the collaborative projects I witnessed – bringing together local NGOs, community members, industry, and conservationists – gave me real hope that we can work together to keep firefly magic alive!
While visiting Thailand and peninsular Malaysia this month, I got to see many exciting firefly education and conservation initiatives. Here’s a glimpse of some conservation action happening right now in Thailand:
Winding down to the sea, the Chao Phraya River curls around the unspoiled island of Bang Kachao, an area known as the green lung of Bangkok. Although mere minutes from downtown, Bang Kachao is home to a surprisingly robust population of the synchronous firefly Pteroptyxmalaccae, whose males take up perches in particular display trees and all flash together in unison to attract females. My colleague Dr. Anchana Thancharoen has established a firefly education center that trains local volunteers to survey firefly populations along a raised bike path through the mangrove forest. Unlike in many other places, these particular fireflies seem unperturbed by the bright lights that illuminate the path – even some trees completely bathed in artificial light have fireflies. Perhaps this population has somehow managed to adapt to such high ambient light. Yet I wonder – without real darkness giving visual contrast to their flashes, can these males still manage to attract females?
Situated within the Phrom Yothi Military Camp in Thailand’s Prachinburi Province, Firefly Land hosts the terrestrial firefly Asymmetricata circumdata. Many tourists come to see their impressive mating displays on weekends. The government is working to protect the fireflies while still allowing people to enjoy the show. They recently installed a fence that prevents visitors from tromping through the fireflies’ habitat, and constructed a raised walkway leading to a covered viewing platform. They even turn off the street lights during the nightly courtship period!
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!
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?
Invisible lines of connection run through all our lives, knitting them together. Those lines burned brightly for me yesterday, when I had the opportunity to meet John Buck’s daughter and his grand-daughter.
Elisabeth & John fashion a firefly cage in Papua New Guinea.
The Bucks spent a lifetime together researching fireflies (and enjoyed other insects, too!)
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 →