Syncronous Fireflies in the Mountains

Fireflies or Lightning Bugs, whatever you choose to call them dose not change the fact that they can put on one of the most spectacular nature light shows in the Smokies, maybe even the nation? The Synchronous Fireflies event is going to be from June 6th through June 13th, which is this particular species of fireflies projected mating season. During this mating season the fireflies pair up the lighting patterns and turn the night sky into a light show that you will never forget! If you are going to be in the mountains during these dates I highly recommend that you go to (http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/fireflies.htm) and reserve you parking pass. The only access to Elkmont after 5pm during these dates is via  shuttle and you must have a parking pass to park and ride the shuttle, so you must plan ahead, and this event is very popular so book early.

Here is what the National Park Service has to say about the inner-workings of it all:

Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns.

Fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are beetles. They take from one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. While in the larval stage, the insects feed on snails and smaller insects. Once they transform into their adult form, they do not eat.

Their light patterns are part of their mating display. Each species of firefly has a characteristic flash pattern that helps its male and female individuals recognize each other. Most species produce a greenish-yellow light; one species has a bluish light. The males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash. Peak flashing for synchronous fireflies in the park is normally within a two-week period in late May to mid-June.

synchronous firefliesSynchronous fireflies produce light in their lanterns, the pale area of the abdomen visible on the underside of the insect above.

The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence. Fireflies are a good example of an organism that bioluminesces, but there are others as well, such as certain species of fungus, fish, shrimp, jellyfish, plankton, glowworms, gnats, snails, and springtails.

Bioluminescence involves highly efficient chemical reactions that result in the release of particles of light with little or no emission of heat. Fireflies combine the chemical luciferin and oxygen with the enzyme luciferase in their lanterns (part of their abdomens) to make light. The light produced is referred to as a “cold” light, with nearly 100% of the energy given off as light. In contrast, the energy produced by an incandescent light bulb is approximately 10% light and 90% heat.

No one is sure why the fireflies flash synchronously. Competition between males may be one reason: they all want to be the first to flash. Or perhaps if the males all flash together they have a better chance of being noticed, and the females can make better comparisons.

The fireflies do not always flash in unison. They may flash in waves across hillsides, and at other times will flash randomly. Synchrony occurs in short bursts that end with abrupt periods of darkness.

Timing of the Display
The mating season lasts for approximately two weeks each year. The dates that the fireflies begin to display varies from year to year-scientists haven’t figured out why, but it depends at least in part on temperature and soil moisture. It’s impossible to predict in advance exactly when the insects will begin flashing each year.

As the season begins, a few insects start flashing, then more join the display as the days pass. They reach a “peak” when the greatest number of insects are displaying. After peak, the numbers gradually decline each day until the mating season is over. Since 1993, this peak date has occurred at various times from the third week of May to the third week in June.

During the two week long mating season, the quality of individual nightly displays can be affected by environmental factors. On misty, drippy evenings following rainfall, the insects may not readily display. Cool temperatures, below 50º Fahrenheit, will also shut down the display for the night. Moon phase has been observed to affect the timing of nightly displays-on nights with a bright moon, the insects may begin flashing a bit later than usual.

nps.gov

Again if you are going to be in the area you need to experience this. Elkmont is located on the Tennessee side of the park so it is a great opportunity to spend a day in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge and then catch the shuttle on the way back across the mountain.

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