Tennessee fireflies sparkling like never before

Josue Torres

Thousands of fireflies twinkle in the springtime, lighting up the trees of Elkmont, Tennessee, which is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the fireflies hunt for their companions, they shimmer in a sequence of synchronized flashes before plunging it into darkness — a cycle that repeats for hours.

Synchronous fireflies are one of 19 firefly species found in the Smokies, but they have become a common attraction. Every year, at the height of the mating season, which lasts around two weeks at the end of May or the beginning of June, the National Park Service holds an eight-day celebration.

The festival has grown in popularity to the point that the park has developed a lottery system for ticket winners. The event was canceled last year due to the pandemic, although no preparations have been confirmed for this year.

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Photo by Kevin Wong.Unsplash

What is it about synchronous fireflies that attract thousands of visitors per season? What makes these fireflies unique, how to see them in action even if you don’t have passes, and how tourists may help preserve these fascinating creatures are all discussed.

When entomologist Becky Nichols started working at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1997, the synchronous fireflies were more of a local mystery than a tourist attraction. However, with the advent of social media, word spread quickly. Every night, about a thousand people are out on the trail, everyone gazing in silent wonder at the spectacle.

That’s because these aren’t the typical lightning bugs, who use their bioluminescent lanterns to light up backyards all around the planet. Just around a dozen of the world’s more than 2,000 firefly types, including the synchronous species in the Smoky Mountains, will coordinate their flashes.

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Photo by toan phan.Unsplash

Many species of glow bugs have the same fundamental biology as these. The organs under the abdomens of fireflies, which are a kind of beetle, mix oxygen with a chemical called luciferin to create a yellow, green, or even blue light. However, each species has its own blinking pattern, which is used to help individuals recognize their partners during firefly courtship.

According to Nichols, the flickering display of these synchronous fireflies may seem random at first. Male fireflies, unlike other synchronous insects, light up in a succession of four to eight fast bursts before going dark all at once. The blinking becomes louder and more synchronized as more males enter the swarm.

Synchronous fireflies are one of 19 firefly species found in the Smokies, but they have become a common attraction. Every year, at the height of the mating season, which lasts around two weeks at the end of May or the beginning of June, the National Park Service holds an eight-day celebration.

The festival has grown in popularity to the point that the park has developed a lottery scheme for ticket winners. The event was canceled last year due to the pandemic, although no preparations have been confirmed for this year.

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