Tag Archives: Smokies Light Show

Firefly tourism sparks wonder and concern

Fireflies (beetles in the family Lampyridae) include about 2,200 species worldwide, with breathtaking luminous displays that make them one of our most charismatic mini-fauna. So no surprise that their popularity has been skyrocketing lately in countries like India, Mexico, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the United States. In a 2021 review, we estimated that about a million tourists visit firefly-watching sites spread across 12+ countries during a typical year!

For fireflies to thrive, we’ll need to protect the habitats needed by all their life stages.

I’m absolutely thrilled that so many people are stepping into the night to experience the sheer wonder of these dazzling creatures! And tourism can certainly be a boon, creating jobs and providing revenue for local communities.

Yet there’s a dark side to fireflies’ popularity. Confronted with rapidly growing visitor numbers, the stars of the show are often subjected to trampling, disturbance of larval and adult habitat, and light pollution.

Promoting sustainable firefly tourism in the U.S.

More than 150 different firefly species are sprinkled across the United States, including several whose mating displays have grown into seasonal tourist attractions. These include the synchronously flashing Photinus carolinus and Photuris frontalis fireflies, along with many others that put on remarkable light shows.

In April 2021, The Xerces Society hosted the first-ever U.S. firefly tourism charette, a virtual meeting of park managers, tour guides, event planners, and firefly experts. We discussed the many challenges of managing thousands of visitors while still protecting local firefly populations, and came up with guidelines for site managers and tourists.

Aimed at moving U.S. firefly tourism toward greater sustainability, these guidelines are now available on the Xerces website, including:

So enjoy the show, remember to step lightly & keep it dark!

Curious to learn more?

Click here for more info at The Xerces Society, including a map of popular U.S. firefly tourist sites.

Read our 2021 article in Conservation Science & Practice: Firefly tourism: Advancing a global phenomenon toward a brighter future (news story here & here).

Unraveling the Mystery of Firefly Synchrony

Watching a whole forestful of fireflies flashing together in unison is a truly mesmerizing experience. As I described in an earlier post, males of only a few firefly species are capable of this remarkable feat. Although we still don’t know why this behavior occurs, some researchers at the University of Colorado – Boulder recently developed cool tools to shed new light on how fireflies accomplish this collective behavior.

Using Go-Pro cameras to film Photinus carolinus in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Raphael Sarfati and Orit Peleg were later able to reconstruct the 3D flight paths of individual male fireflies. You can read about their study in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine, or check out their original paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Their findings provide clues into how insects with relatively small brains can perform such seemingly complex synchronous behaviors. By demonstrating how fireflies kick off their synchrony, this research will inspire new advances in swarm robotics. In the future, their tracking methods could also be adapted for community science projects like Firefly Watch in the U.S. to help scientists monitor long-term trends in firefly populations.

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?

Continue reading

What’s for Dinner Tonight?

Every June, fireflies light up the Smoky Mountains with their exuberant courtship displays – sure, it all seems very romantic. But a few years ago I spent some weeks with colleagues studying the predators that take advantage of these dense breeding aggregations. We knew that certain insectivores – like birds and lizards – avoid eating fireflies because they’re toxic. So we didn’t expect to find many predators enjoying this luminous feast. Little did we realize how gore-filled that summer would turn out to be!*

Figure 1 from Lewis et al. 2012

* You can read our Dark Side paper  here: Lewis, S.M., L. Faust, and R. De Cock. 2012.  The Dark Side of the Light Show: Predators of Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains. Psyche, 634027.

Continue reading

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.

chimneytops2fire_imt_photo-768x488

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.

Continue reading