Discovery of synchronous firefly population expected to draw more visitors to Watoga |

West Virginians through the generations have marveled at the intermittent flashes of light that take place in the night skies of late spring and summer, as swarms of fireflies emerge from the ground to perform their annual bioluminescence-enhanced mating ritual.

While such displays can be spectacular, particularly if large populations of fireflies are involved, imagine viewing a light show created by thousands of lightning bugs all flashing at the same time, at the same intervals.

Such displays are created by synchronous fireflies, members of two or three of the 2,000 species of fireflies known to exist in North America. Until recently, synchronous fireflies could be found on public lands in the U.S. only in portions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, the Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area in east Tennessee, and South Carolina’s Congaree National Park.

As of this year, Watoga State Park in

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Inside the secret lives of synchronous fireflies

Inside the secret lives of synchronous fireflies
A stacked photograph of Photinus carolinus fireflies flashing in the wild. Credit: Peleg Lab

During typical summers in the southeastern U.S., streams of visitors travel to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to witness one of nature’s most spectacular displays of light: thousands of male fireflies, all flashing together in near-perfect harmony.


“This is the most beautiful biological phenomenon that I’ve ever witnessed,” said Orit Peleg, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In a study published today in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface, she and her lab members shed new light on this beautiful phenomenon—striving to understand how relatively simple insects manage to coordinate such feats of synchronization.

The team discovered that the light shows may be more complicated than scientists realized: Rather than flash according to some innate rhythm, the fireflies seem to observe what

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