Learn how fireflies synchronize

North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to rare fireflies that can synchronize their flashing light patterns. Six flashes at a time, at first independently, then in unison, make up an elaborate mating dance that can only be seen for two weeks each year

TRANSCRIPT

North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to rare fireflies that can synchronize their flashing-light patterns.

Six flashes at a time, at first independently, then in unison, make up an elaborate mating dance that can only be seen for two weeks each year.

Here's a look.

There is no place on Earth in a temperate climate that is the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that can match the rich biodiversity found in the park.

So, having all of that variety of different habitats allows you to have great places for a wide diversity of animal species to live, plants and animals.

And we are continuing to discover just how great that diversity is in the park.

And to date now, in 2016, we have over 20,000 recognized species in the park.

And even more impressive, 900 of those species are newly discovered to science.

And for two weeks every June, for only about two hours in one small corner of the park, one of those rare species creates a kind of nocturnal magic.

And it's all about love.

The firefly display is -- yeah, it's all about courtship.

And it's their way of finding each other and recognizing that they're -- it's the same species.

This is the synchronous firefly.

This is what the firefly's display looks like in a time-lapse still photo using a wide-angle lens.

You can see the blanket of light across the forest floor.

This is what it looks like on video.

We've brightened the video just a bit to help you see the fireflies.

Just keep watching.

As more and more fireflies rise up from the ground where they live, they will light and gradually synchronize their flash, linking together on and off, on and off, all together.

And so the male will be primarily the one that you will see flashing.

It does six to eight flashes and then a period of darkness.

And then it flashes again and keeps repeating that pattern.

The female will be on the ground and will respond with a double flash.

And then when they find each other, they can reproduce.

And then they don't live much longer after that.

So their primary role as adults is to reproduce.

Becky Nichols is the entomologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

She's recorded 19 species of fireflies living in the park, including But it's the only one of the few firefly species in the world that synchronizes its flash pattern.

And the park's synchronous fireflies weren't discovered until 1994.

So, all fireflies have a different pattern of flashing.

And so in order to recognize each other in the dark, they have to have a specific pattern for that species that they can each recognize.

Some fireflies soar at different heights above the ground.

Some fly in a specific flight pattern.

The common evening firefly repeats an upside-down J pattern.

But the synchronous firefly doesn't have a pattern.

Its flash sets it apart.

And like all fireflies, that light is created through a process called bioluminescence.

I don't know if you can see these couple segments here that look a little bit lighter.

That's where the light production occurs.

It's a chemical reaction.

And it's incredibly efficient -- lots of light, no heat.

Fireflies combine the chemical luciferin with an enzyme called luciferase in the presence of oxygen.

When all three are combined in the firefly's abdomen, light is produced.

Every time the firefly flashes, a little more of the chemicals are mixed.

They don't feed as adults.

So what they have in reserve is all they're going to have.

And so once they do their flashing behavior and reproduce, then that's the end of their life span.

[ Insects chirping ]

It's a sad story in a way.

But it's also beautiful.

And it makes the Smoky Mountains even more of a treasure.