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!*
* 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.
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.
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.
Synchronous fireflies flare up in the news each June, just as the annual Smokies Light Show (described in Chapter 2: Lifestyles of the Stars) reaches its peak.Yet such cooperative behavior presents quite a scientific paradox!
Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains
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?