The Great Smoky Mountains' Incredible Firefly Light Show

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Today, the rare Smoky Mountain fireflies are a tourist attraction. Twenty years ago, science didn’t believe they existed.  

At exactly 9:27 P.M., when dusk slips into darkness in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the “light show” begins. It’s June, and for two weeks in Elkmont, Tennessee, the fireflies pool their efforts. Instead of scattershot blips of light in the summer sky, the fireflies—thousands of them—pulse this way for hours, together in eerie, quiet harmony. It’s as if the trees were strung up with Christmas lights: bright for three seconds, dark for six, and then bright again, over and over. It continues this way for hours.

As a child, Lynn Faust would huddle with her family on the cabin porch to watch the spectacle. They’d sit, mesmerized by the “drumbeat with no sound.” And though they’d appreciated the show for generations, Faust never thought the event was newsworthy. “I’d assumed there was only one kind of firefly and thought they did a nice show in the Smokies,” she says.

The natural world has long enchanted Faust. In college, she majored in forensic anthropology and minored in forestry. In her twenties, she circumnavigated the globe for three years, visiting islands you could only get to by boat, learning about cultures before they disappeared, pursuing underwater photography. Today, at 60, she’s a naturalist who writes scientific papers and field guides about fireflies. But she wasn’t always obsessed with the insect. In fact, her academic interest began only in the ’90s, when she read an article by Steven Strogatz, a Cornell mathematician, in which he marveled at a species of Southeast Asian firefly that synchronized its flashes. Highlighting how rare this phenomenon was, Strogatz noted that there were no synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere.

This struck Faust as odd. It contradicted the light shows she had seen growing up. As she dug deeper, Faust found that while there had been more than 100 years of colloquial accounts of North American fireflies flashing in sync, scientists discounted those reports, attributing them to lore or optical illusion. Faust knew the truth: that her Tennessse fireflies were every bit as special as the species in Asia. But how could she prove it?

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Fireflies—or lightning bugs—may be the closest thing nature has to a magic trick: lighting the world from the inside out. Technically, they are bioluminescent beetles. Their glow comes from an internal chemical reaction that combines oxygen and calcium with a series of enzymes, including a key light-producing one called luciferin. The bugs flash for lots of reasons: to communicate, to attract mates, to scare off predators. But for creatures so striking, they’re also common. There are roughly 2,000 species worldwide and 125 or more in North America alone, where catching them is a childhood rite of passage.

More than 20 years ago, Faust wrote a letter to Strogatz after reading his article. He connected her with Jonathan Copeland, a biologist and professor at Georgia Southern University who was studying firefly behavior in Malaysia and Indonesia. Copeland was skeptical of Faust’s tale. Reports of synchrony had crossed his desk before but had never panned out. “The dogma said they do not synchronize in North America,” he says.

Still, he indulged Faust, asking her to describe what she’d witnessed by drawing a “musical score.” As a child, Copeland, a tuba player, dreamed of playing with the Boston Symphony. Ever since, music dominated his approach to the natural world. In grad school, he’d studied and documented the rhythmic lunge and strike patterns of praying mantises. He took a similar slant on firefly behavior and found that if people charted the synchronic rhythms they were witnessing, he could separate a bogus account from a real one. Putting pencil to paper, Faust was nervous. “To look at it scientifically is very different from sitting in your rocking chair with a blanket and enjoying it,” she says. “I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot.”

When her note arrived, “it looked like synchrony on paper,” says Copeland. In June 1993, he was intrigued enough to make the eight-hour drive to Elkmont. He pulled into the cabin’s driveway as dusk fell, no trace of the insects to be seen, and promptly fell asleep—only to wake up to flashes of light all around him. “It was completely obvious—no doubt about it!” he remembers. He rushed to find a pay phone to call his colleague Andy Moiseff. “It must have been about midnight,” he says. “I said, ‘Andy, Andy, you’ve got to see this, they’re flashing synchronously!’ Andy laughed and said, ‘Prove it,’ like any good scientist.” The following summer, that’s exactly what Copeland, Faust, and Moiseff, a professor of physiology at the University of Connecticut, set out to do. It was an unlikely partnership, but the trio made a formidable team. Copeland is a neuroethologist—he studies the neural basis for animal behavior. Faust, an unflappable outdoorswoman and keen observer, knows the area and its wildlife like home. And Moiseff is a computer whiz, with a proclivity for dreaming up theories and building devices to test them.

The three hauled lab equipment, microscopes, video cameras, computers, and insect specimens to sites throughout the Smokies. They started in Elkmont but quickly branched out to determine how widespread the phenomenon was. They hauled bugs back to the lab to do frame-by-frame analyses of the flashes. In the wild, “they were obviously in sync,” Copeland says. But when they repeated the test with individual fireflies in one-gallon freezer bags, the behavior changed. If an insect couldn’t see another, they no longer flashed synchronously. By 1995, the team had the data they needed.

“This was red-hot news in the firefly community,” says Copeland. There are four synchronous species of firefly known in Asia, and they are smaller than the team’s species, Photinus carolinus. “Their flash is wimpy in intensity, but what they lack in flash intensity, they make up in numbers,” Copeland says. They usually remain stationary in trees along the river, unlike carolinus, which fly around in the woods. “Ours are more complicated,” says Faust.

Proving synchrony existed in fireflies in the Western Hemisphere was exciting, but it raised questions about why they flashed this way. And how was that different from what their cohorts did in Asia or, for that matter, from the way their asynchronous relatives behaved in North America and even elsewhere in the park? For the next two decades, Copeland and Moiseff would study the fireflies with Faust each summer, determined to understand these magical creatures. But just as they were getting close, everything in Elkmont changed.

In the beginning, the team had the woods to themselves. “In the old days, there would be the three of us and the odd stranger who was fishing,” says Moiseff. In fact, when Faust first informed park officials about the light show, they didn’t believe her. In 1992, her family had to give up its cabin when the government took control of the resort community’s leases. By then, Faust had noticed that the firefly behavior seemed to be localized: The light show didn’t appear to be taking place even half a mile away from this settled location. She hypothesized that the synchronous behavior could be linked to the unusual conditions near the homes. But when she pointed it out, parks officials assumed her claims were a trumped-up attempt to keep her cabin.

Finally, in 1996, park administrators sent a ranger to the researchers’ campsite to investigate. “It was a funny night,” Faust recalls. “We had this ancient computer set up on the porch and Christmas lights strung across the hill to see if we could control the rhythm of the firefly flashes with the lights going off and on. He was like, ‘Where are they?’ And suddenly, there they were. The guy goes, ‘Oh, my God.’ He said that about six times,” says Faust. The next night they had 20 rangers watching.

By the early 2000s, word had spread. According to one of the park’s supervisory rangers, Kent Cave, “There were fender benders, road rage, crowds of people.” The Smoky Mountain fireflies had become a bona fide tourist attraction. In 2006, the park instituted a trolley service from a parking lot to the viewing area for peak nights, closing access to individual cars. “People were driving up. They might have driven five hours from Alabama or down from Lexington and couldn’t get in,” says Cave.

Today, tourists reserve parking spots in advance online. After the year’s peak firefly emergence has been predicted, reservations for the June viewings go live in late April. The spaces go in minutes. The light show has become the biggest of the park’s special events, with as many as 12,000 attendees in recent years. But as Cave puts it, “Our biggest headache is predicting when these little buggers are gonna flash.” There’s a system for that too. “The pressure of me telling people when to come see the fireflies began 20 years ago,” Faust says. “Like anything in nature, it’s not entirely predictable, but I’ve developed a mathematical way of figuring it out.”

Today, park entomologist Becky Nichols relies on Faust’s degree-day model to determine when the fireflies will emerge. The equation is specific to Photinus carolinus and relies on temperature data Faust and Nichols begin collecting in early March. “You take the high and the low temperatures and plug them into a formula to figure out the larvae’s accumulation of growth,” explains Nichols. “The issue in the past was that we didn’t have good temperature data.” Tiny temperature loggers fixed to trees for air temperature and to the ground for soil temperature have remedied that problem. Faust has her own data logger down the road as well, and the two women compare results as the numbers climb, hoping to come up with the same prediction independently.

Though they’re gratified that the public appreciates the light show, its popularity is bittersweet. The event is too crowded for the scientists to continue studying at the site, so they’ve decamped to other areas in the Appalachian Mountains. As Copeland says ruefully, “We can’t work there anymore because it’s a tourist attraction, and we’re largely responsible for that.”

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So why do Photinus carolinus flash together? No one has quite figured it out, Faust says. But there are theories. In a 2010 paper published in Science, Moiseff and Copeland suggest that synchrony keeps the female firefly from getting confused when searching for a mate. In an experiment using an electronic simulator with light-emitting diodes, they found that uncoordinated stimuli—too many lights coming from too many places at different times—inhibited the female firefly’s response. When flashes were coordinated, the females could clearly send their messages back to the males. Faust agree that synchrony in carolinus is related to mating.

Moiseff, who’s most interested in the firefly’s brain and nerve cells, wonders what it is about the insect’s eyes that helps it process information. Some data has shown that under the right circumstances, a firefly can determine where a flash is coming from. What this could suggest, he says, is that the insect’s brain might break information into different pathways for processing—something that primates and people do, but we don’t think of bugs doing. It’s a problem he’s still studying: “How does a simple nervous system accommodate that? What’s the mechanism?”

Moiseff also points out that Photinus’s synchrony is important not because the phenomenon is so rare but because it changes our perspective on the many ways in which living things interact. With just one proven case in the U.S., the gates opened wide for discovering others. In 1998, Copeland and Moiseff showed that a species on the Georgia and South Carolina coast, Photuris frontalis, was also synchronous. Additionally, the species Photinus pyralis, Copeland says, is “weakly synchronic.” Once you find other species doing this, “all of a sudden they’re not a freak of nature. Instead, they have a solution to a specific environmental need,” says Moiseff.

The last few years, Moiseff and Copeland have kept their firefly studies closer to home. “For the first 10 years, my spouse was very supportive,” says Copeland of his work in Tennessee. “Then she started asking questions about the significance.” He retires from his position at Georgia Southern this year, and, joking aside, considers identifying Photinus’s synchrony to be one of the highlights of his life. “I grew up as a suburban kid afraid of the dark, and I found myself [alone] in the woods with fireflies,” he says. “Serendipity—and a mind set that gets you away from cable TV—plays a role in science.”

Faust, for her part, is still involved with fireflies. She’s working on a field guide that will include images from her collection of more than 60,000 photos. And her family cabin still stands proudly in the same spot where she first saw the light show. But it isn’t quite the same. The cabin now belongs to the park, and she and her family no longer curl up on that porch under thick blankets, waiting for the pulsing spectacle to begin. One thing hasn’t changed, though: No matter how many times Faust has seen the show, Photinus carolinus’s return each summer is still a thrill. “The biggest kick is trying to predict the first night,” she says. “To see that first one and think, ‘Wow, that happened again.’”

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

The Biologists and Activists Fighting to Save Endangered Tapirs in Costa Rica

Stephanie Vermillion
Stephanie Vermillion

Costa Rican biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora was just 5 years old the first time he saw a tapir, and he immediately fell in love with the large, unusual animal. "The tapir was walking on the beach close to Corcovado National Park," he says of the moment that helped impact his future career. "It was a highlight for me; it led me to do what I do now."

Twenty-five years later, Brenes-Mora is a tapir expert and founder of Nai Conservation, a Costa Rican organization that is working to save the endangered species from its worst enemy: humans. Tapirs have been around for some 35 million years, but deforestation, highways through its habitats, and poaching have caused their numbers to drop significantly. It's estimated that the population of the Baird's tapir as decreased by more than 50 percent in just the last three generations. And in turn, what hurts the tapirs hurts the environment.

A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

"Tapirs are considered gardeners of the forests; they plant seeds and have a big impact on enriching the soil," Brenes-Mora explains. "The tapirs are even saving us from climate change. There's evidence from the Amazon that when tapirs are gone from certain forests, carbon sequestration in those forests decreases."

Experts have warned that tapirs, and specifically the Baird’s tapir that Brenes-Mora saw on that beach as a child, may soon be classified as critically endangered if current trends are not addressed.

Thankfully, Brenes-Mora has a plan.

 

I’m in Costa Rica on assignment to create an awareness-building film about the endangered tapir species. My colleague Alisha and I have just wrapped one week documenting the work of Nai Conservation, the local tapir research and conservation organization Brenes-Mora founded in 2015, and we're putting the final touches on our film in one of the most heavily tapir-populated (and protected) habitats, Corcovado National Park.

Of course, seeing a tapir in the wild would add an important element to our film, but even after a full week with the passionate, driven team behind Nai Conservation, we haven't seen even one.

This isn't surprising, though; few locals ever encounter the elusive tapir. The Baird's tapir—Tapirus bairdii, or known locally as danta in Spanish—is one of four tapir species in the region. It's indigenous to Central America and is a mammalian relative of the rhinoceros and horse, though it looks much more hog-like than either of the two (it has no relation to either boars or pigs). It is largely nocturnal and spends most of its day resting, hidden in the rainforests before foraging for fruits and berries in the afternoon. This makes spotting one in the wild even more rare, but Brenes-Mora and the Nai team want us to see a tapir as badly as we do.

Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nia Conservation.
Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nai Conservation.
Stephanie Vermillion

Before launching Nai, Brenes-Mora spent six months in Malaysia after getting his biology degree, working with RIMBA, an NGO studying tigers, flying foxes, and other native wildlife. But since seeing that tapir on the beach when he was young, it had been his childhood dream to work with tapirs, and a fellowship with the Zoological Society of London gave him that chance. According to Brenes-Mora, the fellowships are meant to provide early-career conservationists and biologists an opportunity, through funding and mentorship, to get a foothold in their desired field. For him, that meant tracking tapirs through the highlands of Costa Rica's Talamanca Mountains.

One day in 2015, Brenes-Mora and a friend reached Cerro de la Muerte—Costa Rica's "mountain of death," the highest point on the mountain range. They were discussing creating a logo for the fellowship project, but Brenes-Mora’s friend saw longer-term potential.

"He was like 'whoa, you have more than a logo, you have more than a project, you can actually start something here,'" Brenes-Mora remembers.

And start something he did. The idea quickly evolved into the full-scale conservation project, Nai. (In the indigenous Bribri language of Costa Rica, nai means danta, or tapir.) Under Brenes-Mora's leadership, the organization is bringing together people with a variety of skills to raise awareness and preserve the tapir species. Nai's biologists and veterinarians perform critical, in-the-field research that informs tapir conservation action. The organization's teachers educate children on the tapir species as part of its "Salva-Dantas" program, which prepares youth for a lifetime of helping the tapir. And graphic designers and artists like Mauricio Sanabria, an artist who joined the team as a twentysomething in 2017, create eye-catching signs and other content to help spread the word about Nai—and ultimately the tapir—online and across local communities.

Over the past four years, this seed of a project has grown into a grassroots movement. The team's bright yellow "tapir crossing" stickers—the symbol of support for Nai—are popping up in restaurants, homes, and businesses throughout the country. One delicious example is in Costa Rica's capital city of San José, where Lucía Cole and Mauricio Varela, the founders of Tapir Chocolates, donate a portion of all profits to Nai.

And all the way down in the southwestern-most Osa Peninsula some 200 miles away, two of Nai's biggest supporters, Steven Masis and Deyanira Hernández, plan to guide us through the jungle in search of a tapir.

The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
Stephanie Vermillion

Masis and Hernández lead wildlife tours across the tropical Osa Peninsula, including through the country's popular, secluded Corcovado National Park. Both in their early thirties and with backgrounds in biology, Masis and Hernández join Nai and its partners on virtually all research trips through the remote, 160-square-mile park. Of all the places to spot tapirs in Costa Rica, Corcovado's dense, foggy rainforests—accessible only by boat or tiny plane—are the best bet. But even with their exceptional tapir-sighting success rate, these two activists don't take those sightings for granted.

Any encounter with the endangered tapir is rare and special. Due to threats like poaching (its hide is highly valuable on the black market), habitat loss, road kills, and trafficking, populations are plummeting throughout its Central American habitat. At this point, Brenes-Mora estimates only 1500 tapirs remain in Costa Rica, and research suggests that the total population of Baird’s tapirs in the entire region is only around 3000.

The possibility of losing the tapir species is problematic for planet Earth. The tapir holds a unique ecological "superpower" that’s becoming more important by the second: the ability to help combat climate change. They can eat over 200 pounds of fruit, plants, and seeds a day, and in the process, they essentially clear the forest floor, till the ground with their rummaging, and spread the seeds that they eat through transference and droppings. And they've been doing this for millions of years.

 

Despite the challenges, the tapir movement is not all doom and gloom. Earlier that week, I joined Nai for an afternoon installing "tapir crossing" road signs in central Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerte mountains, and saw several indicators of success throughout the day.

For one, even erecting these street signs is progress. The team used trap-photo data and subsequent tapir and road traffic models to project exactly where traffic accidents occur most frequently, and they have used that data to convince the transportation department and local communities to allow tapir-crossing signs at high-risk sections along the busy Inter-American Highway, which runs right through tapir habitat.

The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
Stephanie Vermillion

"All of our decisions are based on actual data," Brenes-Mora says. "Based on that data, we start making decisions and lobby to include our ideas into policy.”

Brenes-Mora, a pragmatic biologist who has formed strong working relationships with key government leaders and NGOs, is hesitant to claim the decrease in road kills as a success just yet. A couple of years is not enough time to impact the population of a large mammal, he says (especially one with a 400-day gestation period for a single calf—repopulating the species will take a very long time).

But four years is enough time to create a widespread, engaging movement among locals. From Brenes-Mora's perspective, this unity surrounding the tapir is the ultimate success.

"Without people, it doesn't matter if we have protected areas, it doesn't matter if we're protecting the populations," he says. "Without engaging people, we won't be able to secure the species in the long term."

While Nai is his brainchild and tapirs are his lifeblood, Brenes-Mora doesn't want the future of Nai—or, more importantly, the tapir species—to depend solely on him.

"I'm always asking myself 'what will happen when I die?'" he muses. "I don't want tapirs to be unattended if something happens to me. I don't want to be the tapir guy, I want Nai to be the tapir group. I want all the members of the team to be the tapir people. It's hard to do that, but we're on the right track."

With the future in mind, Brenes-Mora is priming people like Nai research lead and team veterinarian Jorge Rojas, artist Mauricio Sanabria, and dozens of other dedicated team members to help carry the tapir mission forward. They tour and give talks, like at a recent weeklong event they hosted at the University of Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, where Brenes-Mora and Rojas spoke at a symposium for students, professors, and activists about threats to tapirs, their importance to the environment, and how to best help and protect them.

That's why our trip down to Corcovado National Park is a milestone for the movement—the plight of the tapir is generally less known than that of the whale or tiger or rhino. Raising awareness about the tapir is one of its best chances at survival.

 

Alisha and I had originally planned to take the two-day Corcovado trek on our own, but after some consideration (and likely Brenes-Mores's urging, given the rough terrain we'd be facing—i.e. jungle off-roading), Sanabria joined us for a chance to see the animal he's been working so hard to save. For all the work he has done as a researcher and activist and the time he's spent in the field, he has yet to see a tapir in the wild.

Suddenly, our naturalist guide bursts from the forest yelling, "Un tapir! Un tapir!," and Sanabria takes off running. Despite the fact that Masis and Hernández see tapirs more regularly than most, they're leading our 100-yard blitz down the beach with him—smiling their "Christmas morning grins" every step of the way.

Finally, after much huffing and puffing, we've made it. We've caught up with our guides and are now face to face with the remarkable tapir we drove hundreds of miles to see.

Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

We're awestruck and on adrenaline highs, but the tapir couldn't be less interested in the five of us. He offers a polite nod between super-sized mouthfuls of vegetation, but he has business to attend to—like strolling along the shoreline, urinating in the ocean, and then passing out in the sun.

Sanabria locks eyes with the now-sleepy tapir, and in a moment of near-solitude with the elusive creature, Sanabria can feel the magnitude of the work he's been doing.

"It's touching to finally see what you're working for," he says. "It's a little sign of hope."

A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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