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10 Fun Firefly Facts

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Flickr user Langston Creative

No summer evening is complete without watching—and sometimes catching—fireflies. There are about 2000 different species of lightning bugs, and there's still a lot that scientists don't know about them. Here are a few things we do know.

1. They’re actually not flies—they’re beetles.

Courtesy of Flickr user Wesley Fleming

Up close, it's easier to see that fireflies are beetles. And like all other beetles, they have hardened forewings. Fireflies use the forewings—also called elytra—for balance while in flight.

2. A firefly's glow is a chemical reaction—which makes them bioluminescent.

According to LiveScience, the light is produced when oxygen is mixed with a pigment called luciferin, an enzyme called luciferase, and a chemical that provides cells with energy called adenosine triphosphate. The final part of the formula is uric acid crystals, which are located in the cells that make the light and shine the light away from the firefly's body. (The light-emitting part of the firefly is called a photic organ, by the way.)

3. Males focus on finding a mate.

At the nucleus of their night flights, the brightness of their glow, and their flashing patterns is one thing: reproduction. These guys are intent on mating. Typically, the females sit immobile, and only flash back when they see a male with a particularly impressive display.

4. Each species has its own flash pattern.

As males fly through the air searching for a mate, each uses a "flash fingerprint" specific to its species. According to the American Museum of Natural History,

Males fly through the air and search for females with a species-specific light display. Some flash only once. Some emit “flash trains” of up to nine carefully timed pulses. Others fly in specific aerial patterns, briefly dipping before sharply ascending and forming a “J” of light. A few even shake their abdomens from side to side and appear to be twinkling.

Scientists can use these patterns to determine how many species are in an area.

5. Some sync up.

Called "simultaneous bioluminescence" by scientists, the phenomenon of fireflies flashing in unison only happens in two places in the world: southeast Asia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

6. Flashing fireflies almost don’t exist west of the Rocky Mountains.

There are a few rare exceptions, but for the most part, flashing fireflies don't live west of the Rockies. Why? Well, no one is really sure. Whereas flashing fireflies communicate with their flickers, non-flashing ones use phermones to stay in touch with one another.

7. They can be poisonous.

Not only do fireflies taste nasty, they can actually kill. When predators attack, fireflies kick in to a process called "reflex bleeding." They shed drops of blood that contain bitter-tasting chemicals that are poisonous to vertebrates, including lizards and sometimes birds. They're not so great for humans, either: When scientist Marc Branham with the American Museum of Natural History gently put a firefly he'd caught in a net between his lips (his hands were full with a jar), “Both lips went numb. Then my throat constricted. They really taste sort of astringent. I quickly put them into my jar and I haven’t done that since.”

8. In much of Europe, female fireflies don’t actually fly.

European female fireflies remain flightless into adulthood and take on the form of a worm that glows rather than flashes.

9. Female fireflies can be cannibalistic.

In general, fireflies don't feed, but when they do, they tend to eat mites or pollen. However, the femme fatales of the genus Photuris like the taste of their own. Using "aggressive mimicry," the female of this particular subfamily waits for a male firefly to flash, then imitates that male's flash pattern, suggesting that she is a receptive mate. After luring him in, she chows down.

10. And the larvae aren't a picnic, either.

These glowing worms will follow the slime trails of snails and slugs, paralyze them with a bite, and chow down.

Sources: National GeographicAbout, Firefly, LiveScience, and American Museum of Natural History ( target="_blank">2), Animal New York

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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iStock

Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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