Sometimes our summer nights are ablaze with silent sparks, while other years we might barely see a flash in the exact same spot. What gives? A recent study provides some insight into what drives these fluctuations, and it reminds us to take the long view.
Keep in mind that the flashy adult represents just a tiny fraction of a firefly’s life cycle. Before that, they spent up to two years living underground in a juvenile larval stage. During this time they are eating machines, growing steadily as long as they have access to their prey – mainly earthworms, snails, and slugs. Only if they manage to survive predators, competitors and climatic conditions will they eventually emerge into an adult firefly.
What was their goal? Tracy Evans and her colleagues (see full citation below) decided to see if they could predict changes in adult firefly abundance across different U.S. locations using data on weather conditions during juvenile development.
What did they do? They took data gathered by citizen scientists who participated in Firefly Watch between 2008 and 2016 (only total firefly counts were used in this study). They combined this with information from NOAA on monthly temperature, precipitation (rain & snowfall) and soil moisture for each location.
What did they discover? Weather conditions during juvenile development had a small but significant effect on the abundance of adult fireflies. In particular, adult abundance increased when soil moisture was high during development, and decreased when soil moisture was low. Precipitation also mattered: for 20 months before adult emergence, both too much and too little precipitation reduced firefly abundance. Very high maximum temperatures during the previous winter and spring reduced abundance.
What does this mean? Of course different firefly species will have different requirements, but this study reveals some interesting general patterns. Fireflies seem to thrive when there’s sufficient soil moisture, and when there’s just enough precipitation – not too much and not too little during their juvenile stages.
Citation (warning, paywall!): Evans, Tracy R. ; Salvatore, Donald ; Van De Pol, Martijn ; Musters, C. J. M. 2019. Adult firefly abundance is linked to weather during the larval stage in the previous year. Ecological Entomology, 44: 265-273.