“In the still of the Tennessee night, my colleagues and I are watching thousands of dim little orbs of light, moving peacefully in the forest around us. We try to guess where the next flash will appear, but the movements seem erratic, even ephemeral,” writes SFI External Professor Orit Peleg in an op-ed about her research on firefly synchrony for Aeon.
But those seemingly stochastic flashes can, in fact, contain order. Peleg recalls first learning about firefly synchrony while reading a book by former SFI External Professor Steven Strogatz. “To this day, I still remember discussing firefly synchronisation in that class, imagining them producing a light show influenced by the same physical laws that control electrons in a superconductor,” she writes. This ignited questions that have driven her research ever since.
Read the essay, “Living Orbs of Light” in Aeon (September 21, 2021)
While fireflies have been found on every continent except Antarctica, synchronous species are rarer. Early scientists who investigated popular accounts of firefly synchrony often dismissed it as an illusion, a statistical accident, or an observational artefact caused by an observer blinking their eyelids or the fireflies’ light-producing organs being aligned by the wind. As synchronous displays are rare, not to mention complex and ‘messy’, skepticism persisted. Even after precise synchrony was first confirmed in Thailand in 1968, there was no record of the phenomenon in the western hemisphere until the 1990s. It was Lynn Faust – back then a firefly hobbyist, nowadays a world-renowned expert – who was the first to identify synchronous fireflies in the United States, in the backyard of her family’s cabin in Tennessee. Careful studies over the past 50 years have confirmed that synchronous fireflies are more common than originally thought. To date, three species of synchronous fireflies have been found in North America, and we might yet discover many more in the future.