The Great Smoky Mountain synchronized fireflies

Posted by | June 19, 2009

Please welcome guest blogger Dylan Thuras. Thuras is a travel blogger and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Joshua Foer. The following post ran originally on Boing Boing.

Happening right now, and for the next few days, the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee will light up as P. Carolinus fireflies begin to blink in beautiful, astonishing unison. The fireflies, who can sense when their neighbor fireflies are flashing and attempt to flash before them, send waves of light to cascading down the Tennessee hillsides.

One of the best spots to see them is in one small area, near the Little River Trailhead in Elkmont, TN.

Long thought to be an exclusively Southeast Asian phenomenon, the dazzling behavior was only discovered in an American firefly species (P. Carolinus) in 1992. The American fireflies were first brought to the attention of scientists by a reader of Science News, who thought it odd that an article on Asian firefly synchronicity mentioned nothing about the bugs near her own home. She wrote a letter to a Steven Strogratz, a Cornell mathematician who studies synchronization:

I am sure you are aware of this, but just in case, there is a type of group synchrony lightning bug inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Elkmont, Tennessee. These bugs “start up” in mid June at 10 pm nightly. They exhibit 6 seconds of total darkness; then in perfect synchrony, thousands light up 6 rapid times in a 3 second period before all going dark for 6 more seconds. “We have a cabin in Elkmont… and as far as we know, it is only in this small area that this particular type of group synchronized lightning bug exists. It is beautiful.

In 1995, scientists confirmed the existence of the Great Smoky Mountain synchronized fireflies, and have subsequently discovered other populations in the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina and other high altitude locations in the Appalachian mountains. As this curious phenomenon remained undiscovered for years, it is quite possible that there are other varieties of fireflies blinking in unison throughout the United States, perhaps even in your own backyard.

More info on the Smokey Mountain fireflies here and here; more info on bioluminescent spots around the world on the Atlas bioluminescent spots page.

appalachia Elkmont+TN synchronized+fireflies Great+Smoky+Mountains+National+Park appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

2 Responses

  • Cliff Leverette says:

    The same thing happens behind my house. The woods are growing on the Natchez Trace Historic Parkway and are as protected as the Smoky Mountains are. I first noticed the lights when I went to the site of our house in April, 1997 and saw so many lights coming out of the woods that I went to take a closer look. Inside the forest were hundreds of thousands of lightening bugs all flashing at one time. They were also mainly on one level and this level was even for as far as I walked in 20 minutes. Some of the bugs uphill were near the ground while others downhill might be 10 feet off the ground. Eventually they get out of synch and they make a concerted effort to resync. As they do, suddenly a wave of lights flash like a wave of water through a lake. One wave of light after another, starting way out of my sight somewhere to the north and traveling south far out of sight in the woods. It has always been from north to south when I have seen it.
    The display continues for about a week. For about a month prior to that there are plenty of “early bugs” who crawl up out of the ground, leave the woods blinking and then fly off into the meadows. The numbers increase more each night as time goes on but I never know by counting an increase in numbers when the first big night will be.

    We have followed this light display by night, learning that it goes continuously north up to River Bend park, which is almost 20 miles north of our home in the woods beside the Trace. We got out of the car and looked across the river and could easily see that the synchrons were still flashing away over there, too.

    I am quite happy that you get to experience that at Elkmont but I have given only one clue as to where ours are so that our woods don’t fill up to see the sight at night. I have talked to an entomologist at Mississippi State University who has traveled to Elkmont to see the fireflies. He was not amazed that it happens here and has thus far refused to drive down to see our display. Maybe its because there is no Elkmont here.

  • Very interesting, I’m sure that those of us who spend most of our lives outdoors in the fresh air would agree!

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