An International Group of Researchers Document Firefly Species in Kelletville
By Matt Peters
Warm summer nights are just made for camping trips. The long days and long trails, the deep woods and the dark nights sleeping under the stars or swapping stories late into the night evoke the roots of our humanity, a concept which becomes so much clearer when we leave the noise and distraction of modern civilization behind. In the natural world, we can find analog behaviours among our neighboring species that offer insight into our own existence. Examples of cooperation, altruism, sacrifice and friendship among fish, foxes and bugs can be applied to human constructs of economy, politics, commerce and society, for the benefit of our own species and so many others.
The firefly is a fascinating creature that encapsulates so many aspects of this biological parable. Childhood memories of fireflies are almost universal, with some 2,000 known species around the world and 125 in North America. This past summer, an international team of biologists came to the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) to investigate the ADP’s discovery of Synchronous Fireflies (Photinus carolinus) in the ANF, and this fall published their findings in a report: The Allegheny National Forest June 2012 Firefly Survey of Forest and Warren Counties by Lynn Faust et al documents the presence of at least 15 species within the boundaries of the ANF, a significant level of diversity for any one location. Researchers confirmed the presence of P. carolinus through DNA testing and field observation, and observed another rare firefly species, the Chinese lantern Photuris versicolor. Researchers note the possibility that the number of species living within the borders of the ANF is even greater, given that some species may appear before or after the ten-day survey period conducted in late June of 2012.
The firefly that we are most familiar with here in the US is the relatively common Photinus pyralis. This beetle is active in similar evening habitats and conditions as we ourselves might be: open or edge areas, tolerant of moderate light such as twilight or a full moon, and temperature ranges that we ourselves would find comfortable. These familiar insects flash their bioluminescent lanterns at regular intervals, the greenish J-shaped swooping signals attracting potential mates and curious children armed with mason jars alike. Each species of firefly has its own unique flash pattern, including species that do not flash at all. Some species mimic the flashes of those firefly species that are then eaten, possibly to provide the defensive chemicals to help protect the eggs that they lay.
Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are a comparatively rare species that occupies a nighttime niche where we humans seldom find ourselves: deep forest in the fullest dark of night at high elevations near water. Rarely do we venture far beyond the glow of the campfire without a flashlight, notes firefly researcher Lynn Faust from the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and even this amount of light pollution is enough to disrupt the display of this unusual species. Hundreds or even thousands of males gather together under cover of darkness beneath mature forest canopy and, as if of one mind, flash in rapid succession for 3-5 seconds and suddenly collectively stop for six to 12 seconds. Then just as abruptly, the males begin their rapid sequence again en masse. During the brief dark interval, the females on the ground below respond with furtive flashes invisible to the casual human observer, targeting their chosen males to signal their acceptability for mating. The effect is an astonishing display of nature’s mystery and wonder that the research team describes as the “WOW!” effect in their field report.
Populations of the synchronous firefly are found in isolated pockets throughout the Appalachian region, from the mountains of northern Georgia to the recent observations in northwestern PA and western NY. The Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee/North Carolina host the best-known population of P. Carolinus, where thousands of visitors head for the mountains every summer to witness the spectacle, creating a forest management logistical nightmare (and economic windfall for local businesses). The firefly appears to be more widespread in our region, notes the report, which suggests that the impact of any associated increase in tourism and forest visitation will be similarly distributed. Other than these Appalachian populations, the only other known location of firefly synchronicity is in Malaysia and certain islands in Indonesia. However, the synchronous fireflies in Asia (there are several species) are COMPLETELY different critters with different synchrony.
Recorded sightings of this species in Western PA date back to the 1800s, so the recent sightings are not a function of habitat shift due to climate change. What is more likely is that as our forests recover from the heavy logging of the previous century, the mature forest habitat is restored and species like the synchronous firefly can return. This wonder of nature, apparently so prevalent in our midst yet so unnoticed even by community residents in the area, is an important indicator of forest health and raises important questions for public forest management. The firefly is quite sensitive to pollution of many forms, requiring dark night skies free of light and noise pollution, but also clean air, water and soil free from industrial pollution as well. The synchronous firefly is a deep-forest species, requiring a mature canopy overstory and open understory free from the congested growth of a younger or fragmented forest. The presence of this insect is a reminder that the forest belongs to creatures unseen and unremembered in economic ledgers and forest planning documents. Standing in the deep forest on a dark night, in the presence of these amazing insects swirling around like so many snowflakes, we can find the wilderness within and reconnect with some of our own lost humanity and innocence.
The Allegheny Defense Project will continue training citizens in firefly identification and field methods in order to continue the work initiated by the publication of this survey report. Our Summer Outing, June 21 to 23, will feature these firefly skills, look for more information on our website as the season approaches.