If each snake has a different pattern on its scales, and each cat has a different pattern on its fur, why wouldn’t fireflies show different patterns of light?
Turns out they do. And with 2,000 species described, the potential diversification of scintillation is enormous. For example, the Big Dipper Firefly blinks while performing a J-turn and fills in the memories many of us had from childhood, while the sidewinder species blinks for roughly the same amount of time, but in small horizontal rings in the air.
National Geographic has produced a nice guide to firefly watching, equipped with clever graphics that reproduce the pattern of various species, and where you would look in the forest to find them.
However, there are only 16 species known to have the ability to synchronize their flashes with other individuals, and in the Great Smoky Mountains the spectacle of one particular species draws thousands of tourists each year.
Firefly tourism is nothing new. People have been meeting for a long time in Asian countries including China, Thailand, Korea and Japan to see firefly mating exhibits in which males float to their preferred height and display their trademark before welcoming females fly off the ground to meet them.
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 20,000 people enter a lottery in late spring to win one of 800 parking passes for the park. Your goal is to be in your garden chairs for when dusk gives way to darkness, when for a few hours the forest comes alive with tens of thousands of Photinus carolinus 6-second synchronized strobe flashes.
The strobe-like flicker disappears for a similar duration in unison, giving the females time to fly and inspect their mates without visual disturbance.
A scientist explained to the guardian that science as a whole does not know why or how they synchronize their flashes, and that every year a bunch of researchers arrive to try to collect data on the event.
Spectators often describe seeing the event as “life changing”, while a spokesperson for the park has said: “It is one of the most special experiences you can have in the natural world … to be able to have this dazzling array of lights. which then suddenly pausing for eight seconds, puts you in an almost magical kind of environment. “
One Study 2020 from the Great Smoky colony of P. carolinus found that there may be different mating strategies; The first blinkers flash longer and may be more mobile than the rear blinkers.
Beyond that, however, little else is known. But sometimes the best parts of the natural world is how mysterious they are. And unless the Great Smoky Mountains expand their parking lots, it will likely be many years before this mystery is solved.
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