Home Science & Technology Want to help researchers understand fireflies?

Want to help researchers understand fireflies?

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As children, we eagerly awaited dusk, straining our eyes to catch the first yellow flashes. Lightning bugs, as we called them. Chasing them around the yard trying to remember where we last saw the lights was a rite of summer.

There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies – as they are commonly known – around the world. Seeing their bioluminescence is, in many places, a natural spectacle that you can enjoy in your backyard.

But it can also be disappearing. Fireflies face many threats, including the ever-increasing presence of lights. You may have noticed their decline or disappearance in your area.

Here’s how you can help scientists understand these insects. It’s a project that takes you among fireflies with GoPro cameras (included), helping researchers better understand how these creatures communicate.

Synchronicity

Orit Peleg, the project manager, hastened to point out that she is not an entomologist. She received an education in computer science and physics. But the leap in the study of fireflies is not as great as it seems at first glance.

“I’ve always been interested in animal behavior,” says Peleg, an associate professor at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. “I use physics and computer science to better understand this behavior. For fireflies, it’s understanding how they communicate with each other when they’re in congested groups.”

Abstract illustration of tracking individual fireflies. © Peleg Lab at CU Boulder

On the abdomen of the firefly is a tiny organ called a lantern that emits light caused by a biochemical reaction. Fireflies use flashes of these lights to communicate with each other. Each species has its own reaction pattern. Flash patterns can be used for a variety of communication purposes, but they are most commonly used to communicate between males and females during mating season.

“We’re taking what we know about computer language and applying it to firefly communication,” says Peleg.

Individually, the flashes are pretty basic. But their decoding becomes difficult in dense clusters. Some species synchronize their flashes.

In these clusters, individuals have flash patterns that are unique even among their own species. But keeping track of these individuals is difficult, to say the least. A field of fireflies flashing – seemingly in unison – is one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles. (One of the best places to see this phenomenon is Smoky Mountains National Park, where responsible tours are conducted.)

These aggregations are stunning, but pose challenges for researchers. Tracking a single firefly in a swarm can seem like an impossible task.

“You lose track of individual fireflies in dense clusters,” says Peleg. “That’s why we’ve developed methods that can record the behavior of fireflies. We wanted it to be pretty easy to use like standard GoPro cameras.”

Peleg uses pairs of GoPro cameras that work in stereo. When the images are captured, researchers can analyze the patterns. Peleg got Cottrell Scholar Award investigate the communication of fireflies. In accepting the award, she noted that “recent advances in field and virtual technologies allow scientists to explore further than ever before and explore deep questions about the strategies of signal development and their translation and processing.”

There is equipment. But she cannot be everywhere at the same time. Synchronous fireflies are found in many places in the United States. Fireflies only flash for relatively short periods of time each year. It is difficult to create a dataset.

That’s where you come in.

Your chance to help with Firefly’s research

Are you an outdoor nerd or outdoor enthusiast who likes to tinker with trail cameras, GoPros, and other tech gear? This could be the perfect citizen science project for you. Although advanced technological skills are not required, some familiarity with GoPro cameras is helpful.

“With the popularity of fireflies and their widespread distribution, we saw great potential for crowdsourcing information,” says Peleg. “We are looking for volunteers to help us record.”

You can sign up if you want to help. When selected, you will receive 2 GoPro cameras and a hard drive. Your task will be to place the cameras in the middle of a swarm of fireflies. You will then send the records back for processing.

“There is a lack of data on most species of fireflies,” says Peleg. “We may not even know what species are in your region.”

Understanding firefly communication has many scientific applications. It can also help to better understand fireflies. And these insects are the source of so many pleasant summer memories – need our help.

Flares in natural habitat (ridge) as seen from a single camera (A) and after 3D reconstruction (B). The upward curve of the reconstructed swarm shows that the fireflies are keeping a close eye on the steep terrain. This image is part of Figure 1 of the Science Advances 2021 paper. © Peleg Lab at CU Boulder

Fireflies are under threat

According to A the report published by the Xerces Society and the IUCN. Truly dark skies have become a rarity in the United States. And this complicates the firefly’s communication.

“The contrast between the firefly flashes and the background makes it harder for the fireflies to interpret the signals,” says Peleg. “This leads to reduced reproductive success.”

Habitat destruction also plays a role in the decline of fireflies. Fireflies actually spend most of their lives underground as larvae. At this stage they are quite vulnerable; development can wipe out an entire swarm without noticing it.

And, as is often the case, climate change can lead to habitat destruction and other changes. “Fireflies prefer a very narrow range of temperature and humidity,” says Peleg. “Therefore, warming may have negative consequences.”

vegetation at night with lots of firefly lights
Long exposure photos of a P. carolinus outbreak in Great Smoky Mountains NP. A lot of lightning is visible. © Peleg Lab at CU Boulder

Many of us consider fireflies to be familiar creatures. We think we know them. But there is still so much unknown. Peleg notes that there isn’t a lot of information out there about the fireflies that might be in your area.

So the information you collect for this project can help science – and possibly help conservationists better understand these insects. Peleg also notes that it will immerse you in one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles.

“Fireflies are so beautiful,” she says. “Standing in the middle of the swarm, you’re surrounded by all these synchronized lights. It’s something I hope everyone can experience at least once in their life.”

Register here to participate in the Peleg firefly communication study.

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