The species, Macrolampis palaciosi , was first described only seven years ago, and very little is known about its biology. After reading a National Geographic story on the fireflies and their role in promoting local tourism in , filmmaker Blake Congdon decided to travel to the area to film it himself. It took a month for the perfect set of conditions to coincide: a rainy day—with a break in the early evening—on a moonless night, neither too warm nor too cold. And then the magic happened.
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The display was even more incredible than those put on by other synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains and Congaree national parks, he adds. To me this is the beauty, this unexplained, rare phenomenon.
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Indeed, many researchers ponder the same thing—how do synchronous fireflies put on their bioluminescent displays, and why? As for how, work in Thailand by researchers John and Elisabeth Buck dating back to the s suggests that synchronous fireflies get in sync by slightly adjusting the timing of their light cycles based on nearby flashes.
And these can be altered by the presence of other fireflies, or even artificial light inputs. These slight tweaks, by individuals over time, gradually lead them all to synchronize, explains Steven Strogatz , a mathematician who specializes in synchrony and its manifestations throughout the natural world. Read more about how fireflies glow. But that leaves many questions unanswered. Among them: If males want to stand out, then why signal in a synchronized fashion?
In some insects and amphibians that chirp or croak within a few seconds of each other, in a seemingly synchronized fashion, males that signal first tend to be more attractive to females, some research has shown.
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Andrew Moiseff , a neurobiologist also at UConn, suggests that synchrony may make communication easier. Firefly flashes are species-specific, he explains, and it may be that in places with multiple types of fireflies, these coordinated flashes help members of the same group find each other. None of this answers the question, however, as to how males stand out.
When a female signals to a male, it seems impossible for her to be able to send her message to only one individual, he adds. Indeed, in the case of the Nanacamilpa fireflies, females glow softly on the ground while the males synchronously flash.
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